Looking Glass: Judy Watson and Yhonnie Scarce

The TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA) in the Yarra Valley is confidently planning a major show for later this month – even though in October, the staff were still locked out of the beautiful building.


Fortunately, the exhibition, ‘Looking Glass’ had a try-out of sorts in Birmingham, UK. For that city’s Ikon Gallery director, Jonathan Watkins – Director of the 1998 Biennale of Sydney – wanted to show some of our First Nations art and suggested a collaboration with TWMA. They put forward the prolific Indigenous curator, Hetti Perkins as collaborator, and she suggested linking Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Kokatha/Nukunu artist, Yhonnie Scarce.

Coincidentally, both artists were making their own connections with the UK. Watson was there touring prehistoric sites with wonderful names such as The Ring of Brodgar, The Standing Stones of Stenness, and of course Stonehenge, reflecting on her English, Scottish and Irish heritage. Scarce was at Birmingham University pursuing the origins of the nuclear fusion that melted the sand of her ancestors’ Country into glass during Maralinga’s Breakdown Blast. For it was at that university that Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peiris calculated that a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction would make an effective bomb. Scarce went on to start work on one of her iconic installations in a local glassworks before COVID forced her return to Australia.

She will return to her residency next year, and in the meantime, has been creating an installation in Adelaide especially for TarraWarra.

Judy Watson, standing stone, kangaroo grass, red and yellow ochre, 2020, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 250 x 181.5cm. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Melbourne

But Watson did have her moment in the sun in Birmingham. In a room surrounded by her softly undulating unframed canvases, she offered a ghostly circle of standing stones, then overlayered them with images of Indigenous artefacts she’d found in British museum collections, such as women’s hairstring skirts. ‘I wonder how they got them,’ muses Watson. ‘Did they ask the women and the young girls to drop them and take them? Were they collected after a massacre?’

Of course, the original hairstrings, rolled on the thighs of her ancestors, contained their DNA, stamping Watson’s identity on these artworks. As the UK Guardian’s reviewer Hannah Clugston put it: ‘There’s a powerful sense of serenity often found in these mysterious prehistoric outcrops of stones. In my momentary daze, I almost miss the violence – the images of pins, spines, hooks, and the dashes of red that go up with a yelp like a bee sting on a sunny day. This is Watson’s secret weapon; she seduces us with mesmeric forms and then hits us with the heavy stuff.’

Judy Watson, resistance pins, 2018, cast bronze with patina finish, dimensions variable. Photograph: Cian Sanders. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Melbourne

As Hetti Perkins describes it in the show’s catalogue, ‘At its heart, this exhibition is simultaneously a love song and a lament for Country; a fantastical alchemy of elemental materiality: of earth, water, fire and air. Watson’s ochres, charcoal and pigments, pooled and washed upon flayed linens, have a natural affinity and synergy with Scarce’s fusion of fire, earth and air. While their works may refer to specific events, their enigmatic and often intimate forms, gestures and marks also imply an immersive timelessness outside a linear chronology, outside ‘this accidental present’.’

Perkins continues, ‘Watson and Scarce, like all Indigenous Australians, share recent and personally painful histories of the destruction, exploitation and degradation of not only the land, but the people of the land. Essentially, this exhibition is about Australia’s secret and dirty war – a battle fought on many fronts from colonial massacres to Stolen Generations, from the Maralinga bomb tests to the climate emergency.’

Yhonnie Scarce, Death Zephyr (detail), 2017, hand blown glass yams, nylon and steel armature, dimensions variable, installation view, The National 2017: New Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photograph: © AGNSW. Courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Melbourne

Yhonnie Scarce, Hollowing Earth (detail), 2016-17, blown and hot formed Uranium glass, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Photograph: Janelle Low. Courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Melbourne

Indeed, Scarce has made a tour of the world’s great memorials – from Berlin to Wounded Knee – commenting that we avoid even mentioning our massacres and memorialising them in Australia. Watson has an on-going project, ‘the names of places’, which is a collaboration with the public, aiming to map all the places in Australia where horrific massacres of First Nations people took place. References to this will be found at TWMA in her images of troopers’ guns and uniform buttons, all manufactured in Birmingham, and to the 40 pairs of beeswax ears (made by Scarce) nailed to the wall, to imagine the cruelty of a pastoralist who proudly showcased such Indigenous trophies at his home in her Waanyi Country.

Judy Watson is optimistic that the cumulative effect of the show will be, ‘a layering of experiences and a layering of understanding of what is culture.’

TarraWarra Museum of Art
28 November 2020 to 8 March 2021
During 2021 to 2023, ‘Looking Glass’ will tour throughout Australia courtesy of NETS Victoria.

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