Examining Australia’s colonial history

An interview with Yhonnie Scarce

Fifteen black figures, crafted from blown glass, hang from white rope that has been tied around their necks. Carefully arranged in the shape of a crucifix, these hanging bodies represent the destructive impact that colonialism, and the introduction of Christianity to Australia, has had on Aboriginal life and cultural traditions. Named What they Wanted, this solemn artwork, which is on the cover of the current edition of Overland, is the creation of Yhonnie Scarce. Born in Woomera, South Australia, Scarce majored in glassmaking from the South Australian School of Art. In 2011 she was a finalist in the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards, and she has recently returned from a trip to New York where her work Burial Ground was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. Influenced by her indigenous background – Scarce belongs to the Kokatha and Nukunu peoples – her work often explores the effects of colonialisation on the Aboriginal people, in both historic and contemporary contexts. We spoke to Scarce about her work that graces our latest cover and about her artistic practice.

On the cover of the current edition of Overland is a photograph of your artwork, What they wanted. Could you explain the story behind this piece?

I wanted to reflect on the history of the colonisation of Australia and how it had/has affected Aboriginal people, in particular the introduction of Christian missions and genocide. At times Aboriginal people were hung, shot or poisoned so I created this work to depict the event of these deaths. The white rope that has been used to hang the bodies symbolises the white colonisers and the introduction of Christianity. While Aboriginal people lived on Christian settlements they were not allowed to speak their language or follow their cultural traditions, and therefore began to lose their identity.

The white rope that each body hangs from represents the introduced ‘society’ that was forced upon us, subsequently killing who we were as human beings (and at times it still happens today). Practices such as discouraging the use of traditional languages saw the cultural traditions of the Aboriginal people all but disappear.

In effect, the lives of Aboriginal peoples were frequently dictated by the coloniser’s government and by Christian missionaries who considered Aboriginal people to be the secondary race and wanted them to remain under their control in their settlements. This jeopardised the wellbeing of Aboriginal people who had a nomadic lifestyle that was also necessary to maintain their cultural practices. So overall What they wanted depicts one aspect of how Aboriginal people were treated by the non-Aboriginal colonisers.

The ongoing effects of colonisation on Aboriginal people is a recurrent theme of your work. What is it that inspires or motivates you to deal with these issues in your artwork?

I am inspired by my own personal experiences growing up as an Aboriginal person in Australia. I was often subjected to various amounts of racism and ignorance, so a lot of my work reflects the effects that colonisation has had on myself and my family. The effects of colonialism have been a constant presence throughout my life. One of its legacies is evident in the racial vilification I witnessed and have been the target of during my childhood, and more recently as an adult. These experiences have had a major impact on my artistic practice, in that they have led me to focus on the history of Aboriginal people.

It is my aim to examine the history of colonisation by focusing on its impact on my family, through which I will explore how its consequences persist in Australian culture. This exploration focuses on the effects of displacement as they play out in questions of subjectivity and identity. Through my artwork I am exploring the way that the issues relating to questions of subjectivity and identity can be presented. I am interested in how the modes of perception were, and still are, used as underlying weapons of colonial power to keep colonised people submissive to the hierarchy of colonial rule. Research into my family’s experiences has engaged with the wider issue of the containment of Aboriginal people, including the forcible removal of these people from their land and their consequent death.

What drew you to glassmaking?

I’m not sure what really drew me to glassmaking, at first it was the excitement of being able to blow glass but then it became the medium I thought I could use to portray my ideas and concepts. Plus I am able to create objects that are ‘life like’ and that have their own individuality. I utilise blown glass and incorporate other mediums such as fabric and twine. The fragility and strength of blown glass makes it especially appropriate in relation to Australia’s postcolonial history, as it conveys the vulnerability and persistence of Aboriginal people and their culture despite the consequence of colonisation.

Are you working on any new projects?

Currently I’m completing a work for an exhibition called Deadly: in between heaven and hell for the Adelaide Festival that opens in February. As well I’m working on a new series of works that discusses how Aboriginal people are scientifically analysed and how this is related to my identity. There are a few other projects that I am working on but unfortunately they are confidential at the moment so I have to remain quiet about them at this stage.

Roselina Press

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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