Judy Watson and Yhonnie Scarce

Hetti Perkins

Judy Watson, spot fires, our country is burning now 2020

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.1

1. Excerpt from ‘The Past’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, first published in 1964, published in Kevin Gilbert (ed.), Inside Black Australia: An Anthology of Aboriginal Poetry, Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 1988, p. 99.

At its heart, this exhibition of works by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Yhonnie Scarce from the Kokatha and Nukunu peoples, 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 fusions of fire, earth and air. In their paintings, installations and films, Watson and Scarce express the inextricable ‘one-ness’ of Aboriginal people with Country, a familial relationship established for millennia. Celebrated activist and poet, the late Oodgeroo Noonuccal from Minjerribah wrote ‘The Past’ to ‘tell everyone in the world who I am, what I am and why I am what I am’.2 So too, Looking Glass draws on the autobiographical to extrapolate a collective Aboriginal history that precedes and informs the ‘accidental present’ of Australia today.

Together Watson and Scarce offer a panoptic and holistic portrait of Country where the creation and experience of art is mnemonic for the inherited, remembered and lived history of Aboriginal people.

Yet, while their works often refer to specific events, their enigmatic and often intimate forms, gestures and marks also imply an immersive timelessness outside of a linear chronology; an existence today that is more than the ‘now’. Colloquially, this is often referred to as the Dreaming to imply an ‘extra- consciousness’, an extraordinary perception of the connection of Country, community and culture. In 1953, the Australian anthropologist WEH Stanner wrote, ‘One cannot “fix” The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen’.3 Curator Stephen Gilchrist of the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group notes, that Stanner’s ‘poetic neologism was not necessarily offered to suggest a synonym for the Dreaming, but rather to provide that concept with nuance. Nonetheless, the term captures something elusive about the Dreaming’s approach to time — its singularity, sequentiality, and connectivity’.4 Or, to borrow from a scholarly interpretation of a metaphor in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass — for Aboriginal people there is never any jam today:

The White Queen offers to hire Alice as her lady’s maid and to pay her “Twopence a week, and jam every other day.” Alice says that she doesn’t want any jam today, and the Queen tells her: “You couldn’t have it if you did want it. The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day.” This is a reference to the rule in Latin that the word iam or jam meaning now in the sense of already or at that time cannot be used to describe now in the present, which is nunc in Latin. Jam is therefore never available today.5

Through the works of Judy Watson and Yhonnie Scarce the viewer steps through the ‘looking glass’ of contemporary Australia to challenge its popularised reflection of a young, free and ‘lucky’ country, as immortalised in Dorothea Mackellar’s patriotic anthem or love song, ‘My Country’.6 It’s a version of Australia at odds with an Aboriginal sense of ‘homeland’ that exists outside of the accidental present and beyond short term gain. In After the Dreaming, his series of Boyer Lectures in 1968, Stanner observed that ‘No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland … Our term ‘land’ is too spare and meagre. We can scarcely use it except without economic overtones unless we happen to be poets’.7 In their art, Watson and Scarce expose this ‘big picture’ — this meagre, unimaginative and abusive relationship to ‘land’ — peeling back the thin disguise of nationalist clichés to expose the short-sightedness of the rapacious exploitation of Country for a quick profit — for ‘jam’ today.

Curiously, the Carroll allusion has further, unintended significance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when read by a member of our community. In our eyes, it alludes to the indentured servitude for little or no wages of lost — or stolen — children, as well as the deceitful bartering of rations, the withholding of rations and the poisoning of rations. More broadly, Alice’s encounters in an alien world resonate within the context of our frontier history as a story of powerlessness within a new, strange and often merciless world.

The experiences of Watson’s matrilineal ancestors at the hands of white ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ in the pastoral industry are a continuous theme in her art. While the ochred surfaces of her paintings in Looking Glass literally evoke her Country, the ubiquitous hues of blue in her paintings and works on paper are a metaphor for memory:

I listen and hear those words a hundred years away That is my Grandmother’s Mother’s Country
it seeps down through blood and memory and soaks into the ground.8

Watson’s ‘long making’ draws on the ‘memory’ of her matrilineal heritage rooted in the country of Boodjamulla and patrilineal northern European ancestry. In exploring the landscape of her father’s people for the commissioned works in this exhibition, she literally drew a metaphor of string, a corporeal, umbilical connection, the strands of which are fused into the artist’s DNA. The film work invasion, 2020, documents the travels of the artist and her family to England, Ireland and Scotland in 2019, overlaid with a string object sourced from the Gulf of Carpentaria held in the collection of Cambridge University. The monolithic and standing stone arrangements documented and diarised during her journey appear in her paintings imbued with an otherworldly presence inferring their sacredness. In these works, Watson drapes these sentinel forms with icons reminiscent of home — grevillea, kangaroo grass and gumbi gumbi.

The seductive beauty of Watson’s paintings and Scarce’s installations belies a powerful message — drawing us into their ‘tender trap’. Watson and Scarce, like all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, share recent and personally painful histories of the destruction, exploitation and degradation of not only the land, but the people of the land. Watson’s spot fires, our country is burning now 2020 is chillingly reminiscent of the satellite images of Australia’s eastern coast during the cataclysmic bushfires in the Australian summer of 2019–20, while Scarce’s ectoplasmic yam forms in her lethal atomic cloud cast ghostly shadows, becoming a vast memento mori, warning of the dangers and consequences of warmongering and environmental destruction. 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 atomic bomb tests to the climate emergency.

Watson’s and Scarce’s aesthetic arias of love and lament bring to mind the dystopia of TS Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1917). This ‘love song’, written in a time of rapidly accelerating industrialisation and technological experimentation which peaked during the mid-20th century atomic age, is a creepy and prescient invocation of an apocalyptic world where innocents asleep in their beds are encroached upon by a lurking menace, a poisonous fog. In the post-apocalyptic Maralinga landscape, the innocents rest uneasily in their graves, photographed by Scarce at the Woomera Cemetery, as do the countless others who vanished in the desert lands of the test sites. Scarce juxtaposes over-scaled, starkly rendered images of the cemetery against the fragility of the glass forms resting in laboratory-like cribs.

The ‘black mist’ (radioactive fallout) did not spare the white workers at the Woomera weapons base who were used as guinea pigs in the tests, or their children. For those Aboriginal people living on the lands and surrounding areas who survived the successive bombs, the fallout brought a plague upon their families and descendants. Scarce memorialises our people in Cloud Chamber, 2020, an installation of many hundreds of anthropomorphic glass yams that comprise a mushroom cloud formation, mimicking that created by the Breakaway atomic test, the final one in the series. Eerily, the use of glass within Scarce’s installations echo not only the vast ‘lakes’ of vitrified sand caused by the blast, but also the glass shards used to decorate the graves of her people at the Koonibba Mission Station.

In Looking Glass, Judy Watson and Yhonnie Scarce poignantly remind us how the pursuit of the Great Australian Dream is not what it seems. It is, in reality, a nightmare, a shimmering mirage, a candle in the coming storm.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.9

2. Quoted in Ellen van Neerven, ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal: Poems’, URL: https://readingaustralia.com.au/essays/oodgeroo-noonuccal-poems, accessed 23 September 2020.
3. WEH Stanner, ‘The Dreaming’ in White Man Got No Dreaming, Essays, 1938–1973, Canberra and Norwalk, Conn.: Australian National University Press/Books Australia, 1979, p. 24.
4. Stephen Gilchrist, ‘Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia’ in Stephen Gilchrist (ed.), Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, (exh. cat.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2016, p. 19.
5. Eleanor Cook, Enigmas and Riddles in Literature, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 163.
6. Dorothea Mackellar, ‘My Country’, first published in the London Spectator in 1908 titled as ‘Core of My Heart’. It reappeared several times in Australia before being published as ‘My Country’ in her first book, The Closed Door and Other Verses, Melbourne, 1911.
7. WEH Stanner quoted in Mick Dodson, ‘Foreword’ in Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett (eds.), An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008, p. v.
8. Judy Watson, artist statement, in Wiyana/Perisferia (Periphery), exhibition catalogue, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative
at The Performance Space, Sydney, 1992, not paginated.
9. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1917) in T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909–1962, London and Boston: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1963, p. 13.