Narratives in glass

Master glass artist Yhonnie Scarce open up a world of tragic and hidden stories at the Art Gallery of WA.

Yhonnie Scarce at the Art Gallery of WA with her work Fallout Babies 2016, blown glass, found hospital cribs, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Presented across three gallery spaces, Yhonnie Scarce: The Light of Day at the Art Gallery of WA is an impressive achievement of skill as well as profound and poignant consideration. It’s the largest-ever ensemble of collected glass, photography and mixed media by the Kokatha and Nukunu artist in Australia, and spans her practice from the early 2000s to the present day. Internationally recognised, Scarce is one of the country’s leading contemporary artists, known for her large-scale, extraordinary glass installations, emitting sparkling light reflections on their surfaces, but also bringing to light some of the darkest and shocking shadows of Australia’s past. 

Scarce was born in Woomera, in South Australia, 446 kilometres from Adelaide, near Maralinga, where the effects of British nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s on her birthplace were severe. In works such as Thunder Raining Poison (2015) and Death Zephyr (2017), hundreds upon hundreds of glass yams representing deceased Aboriginal people hang from the gallery ceiling forming wind-swept silhouettes referencing the poisonous clouds which swept through the region during this time. The effects are ever more emphasised in Fallout Babies (2016), with found hospital cribs containing glass bush plums symbolically representing babies, set against a large-scale photograph of row after row of graves at Woomera. Scarce says the graves are primarily of children of many ages, mostly stillborn or children with deformities. “Not a lot of children at that time lived past the age of two,” she says. “It is my own photograph in the exhibition, and I return to the cemetery and still take photos. People say they died of the heat, but when a lot of these children were passing away it was only 24 degrees.”

The use of uranium in nuclear bombs and uranium mining is highlighted in Hollowing Earth 2026-17. Tables of hand blown and hot formed uranium glass have an eerie green glow in the UV lit gallery space.  

In The Dead House (2020), speaks of atrocities on First Nations people. The structure contains hand blown glass bush bananas and a vintage mortuary trolley. Inside, the glass works are presented as if in a science lab and represent the desecration of Aboriginal people at the hands of Scottish-born William Ramsay Smith (1859–1937), city coroner in Adelaide and inspector of anatomy. Scarce says he was not only known to rob graves, not just of Aboriginal people, so his students could use the cadavers at Royal Adelaide Hospital, but he was also known for selling body parts of Aboriginal  people to universities and museums in the UK. “There’s thousands of remains all over the world yet to be repatriated,” says Scarce, “including at the South Australian Museum which has one of the largest collections of skeletal remains in Australia.” Scarce used white alabaster in the glass to represent the film that appears on people as they decompose. “It gives them a spirit effect, so they do actually appear quite moist,” she says.  

Scarce’s family features strongly in the exhibition. Oppression, Repression (Family Portrait) is an early 2004 student work, depicting prints of family members placed in glass jars with lids, with glass bush fruit, ie culture, placed above them. An archival photograph simply titled Dinah is of her grandmother, taken without her permission. As such, the artist has requested no photos be taken of this work to protect her grandmother from further disrespect. “It’s an ethnographic photo,” says Scarce, “which is front on and side on which is offensive imagery. They had removed the top half of her dress in a way that was more about what her breast and back looked like. I wanted to honour her as a strong matriarch, so the photograph was cropped so you’re looking straight at her face rather than anything else. The glass plums featured with her are descendants, so there are these little people waiting with her as well.” 

Remember Royalty (2018) is also a no-go zone for visitor photos. On loan from the Tate Gallery in London, the installation features large-scale images of her ancestors screen printed on carefully selected textiles. Scarce says she considers her family royalty, as well as every Aboriginal in the country. “I feel like family is around me all the time, and despite not meeting them in person, they’re very much part of my life.” Under each image Scarce has created a ‘gift’ for her relatives – a French suitcase for her grandmother, filled with glass objects representing all her children, and a new set of glass tools for her grandfather, a well-known shearer, who was no doubt not paid for his work. 

AGWA’s Head of Indigenous Programs Clothilde Bullen says there is no one in Australia making this type of work apart from Scarce. “That is huge. It’s something we as Australians should be really proud of. She has been recognised globally, exhibiting in The Armory Show in New York last year, and in Paris, London and Berlin. This is an Aboriginal artist, and a really incredible master glass artist for Australia.”

Yhonnie Scarce: The Light of Day is on show at the Art Gallery of WA until 19 May. A monograph accompanies the exhibition.

Servant and Slave, 2018, porcelain and hand-blown glass 87 x 180 x 80 cm (50 pieces – variable), table: 75.5 x 180 x 80 cm y Yhonnie Scarce. Shepparton Art Museum Collection: 2018 Indigenous Ceramic Award – Winner, 2018. © Yhonnie Scarce.

♦ Yhonnie Scarce at the Jam Factory, Adelaide, 2013. Photo James Grose. Image courtesy of the artist and THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne.


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