In Death Zephyr, Yhonnie Scarce’s installation for The National at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last year, hundreds of glass forms hung from the ceiling. They created a beautiful but dangerous cloud. The slightest wind would send them crashing into each other and splintering to the ground.
Which is, in fact, what did happen when nuclear bombs were tested at Maralinga in the 1950s and 1960s. The heat of the bombs created lumps of glass in the sandy earth; toxic clouds hung in the sky, making the land and the food that grew there unsafe. The true human toll of those tests is still unknown.
Glass in the artist’s work is a kind of hard, keloid scar. It’s a mark of past trauma, but not really in the past at all. It’s still there on the surface. Scarce’s work is about the here and how, and the ongoing effects of colonisation on Indigenous peoples. It’s her ability to mine the loaded meanings of her medium – its permanence and its fragility – that gives much of her work its power.
Her blown glass forms often carry several meanings. For Hollowing Earth, the major work commissioned and exhibited by Tarrawarra Museum of Art last year, Scarce created shapes like bush bananas and coloured them yellow with uranium oxide, in reference to mining on Aboriginal lands. She then punctured the shapes with rough holes that spoke not only of the way mining opens up the land, but also of spoiled, rotten fruit. They were exhibited, lying on their sides, like a battlefield of the fallen.
Scarce has had the attention of curators for some time. Her work has been exhibited overseas numerous times, including a solo exhibition at the Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in the United States, one of the most important venues for Australian Indigenous art outside of Australia. Her work was also in the Biennale of Sydney in 2014.
Alongside The National and the Hollowing Earth, Scarce’s work was curated into Defying Empire: the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia, Versus Rodin at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Under the Sun: Reimagining Max Dupain’s Sunbaker touring exhibition. Scarce also won the $20,000 acquisitive Guirguis New Art Prize for her work The more bones the better. This year, Scarce has work in the 1818 project at Newcastle Art Gallery and Colony at the National Gallery of Victoria, as well as the Art Basel Hong Kong art fair with Melbourne’s This Is No Fantasy.