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NGA’s new big thing – Defying the Empire

Emma Macdonald

“We defy:
By existing;
By determining our identity;
By asserting our histories; our culture; our language…”
Tina Baum, NGA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art

The gilt-encrusted vestiges of the Versailles exhibition have been safely returned to the grand palace in France. Now the National Gallery of Australia is gearing up for a major exhibit of artwork which resonates far closer to home.

From May 26, through to September 10, the NGA will host Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial an exhibition that brings the works of 30 contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across the country into the national spotlight.

One of them is Yhonnie Scarce, a Melbourne-based glass artist, who will be exhibiting three thought-provoking installations which are based on the British nuclear testing which took place at Maralinga between 1956 and 1963.

One of five siblings, Yhonnie is a Kokatha and Nukunu woman who spent some of her childhood living at Woomera which is situated on her Grandfather’s country and is part of the Woomera Prohibited Zone, where the nuclear testing took place.

She recalls the stories of clouds, bombs, dust storms and sickness.

Those stories frightened her as a child, and as an adult have instilled in her a deep sense of injustice and anger.

“It is such a disrespectful way to treat both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and I want to use this work to keep a conversation going about that initial injustice and the legacy of destruction it has left.”

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Yhonnie Scarce’s major installation Thunder Raining Poison comprises 2000 hand-blown glass “yams” in formation.

Using glass to depict the nuclear testing is, in itself, fitting.

The blast site reached such incredible temperatures that the brown desert sand melted into shards of green glass.

Yhonnie has three works in the triennial. Blue Danube is a glass replica of one of the bombs, Fall Out Babies is a series of glass bush plums that denote foetuses, while her largest installation is Thunder Raining Poison.

With Maralinga meaning “Thunder” the work depicts around 2000 hand-blown glass yams. The yams can be viewed as not only a traditional food staple for Indigenous communities, but also bodies, as they hang in formation from the ceiling.

Taking almost two weeks simply to install, Yhonnie instinctively creates the form of the installation as she works – meaning that it is different from the time it debuted in 2015 at the Adelaide Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.

Thunder Raining Poison has been acquired by the NGA, with the support of Susan Armitage, in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.

Yhonnie said she enjoyed the challenge of creating such a large and intricate work, which encapsulates her breath within each yam. She is thrilled and empowered by its display at the NGA.

“I am honoured to be here, this is a big deal and has been years in the making for me.”

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Yhonnie Scarce’s work took around two weeks to hang in the National Gallery of Australia.

Defying Empire has been made possible through the support of Wesfarmers Arts which is the NGA’s Indigenous Art Partner. The exhibition follows on from the success of the National Indigenous Art Triennials of Culture Warriors and unDisclosed in furthering the conversation on Indigenous issues through contemporary art practice.

Wesfarmers Arts is the NGA’s Indigenous Art Partner and the Presenting Partner of this exhibition.

the essentials

What: Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial
When: From 26 May until 10 September 2017
Where: The National Gallery of Australia, Parkes
Cost: It is a free exhibition.
Web: nga.gov.au/defyingempire

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author