As Rhonda Sharpe sews, the journeys and adversities of her people unfolds beneath her finger tips. Reaching deep within herself, her community and her Country, her meticulously detailed sculptures unveil a complex vulnerability of spirit and identity.
An artist working out of Yarrenyty Arltere Artists (YAA), in the Larapinta Valley Town Camp of Alice Springs, Rhonda works predominantly in soft sculpture and printmaking, skills she learnt from her aunt, artist Dulcie Sharpe.
While Rhonda picked up art making skills organically through Dulcie and fellow artists in the Yarrenyty Arltere Town Camp, she has made her practice uniquely her own. Her sculptures, while often vibrant in colour and seemingly benevolent, tell of Rhonda’s personal battle with alcoholism. Throughout her career, her works have been largely autobiographical, depicting herself with two heads: one is happy and has purpose while the other is in a constant state of conflict resolved only by the numbing effects of alcohol. “I just get two ideas, to drink or to sew,” Rhonda tells. “I have to choose, every day I have to think which way to go. I’m getting stronger to stay at work, to listen to my good head.”
Her practice has hence become twofold, allowing Rhonda to find peace and pleasure in the slow making process, while giving her a sense of purpose and satisfaction beyond her turmoil. “When Rhonda is in the art room she will sit for hours and hours not talking, just sewing,” tells Sophie Wallace, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists art coordinator. “While chaos ensues around her – laughter, stories, dogs, kids, visitors – Rhonda will just get into the zone of sewing.”
The Art Centre has become a second home for Rhonda and many other artists in the Larapinta Valley Town Camp area. YAA was originally established in 2000 as an arts training project, developed by the community in response to the chronic and systemic social issues faced by the community such as volatile substance abuse. Fostering resilience and strength, YAA has become a safe space for social inclusivity where members of the community engage in an economic workforce that previously excluded them. “The art makes us think of our culture in another way,” says Dulcie. “It’s good for everyone to have a place like this. It helps us be part of both worlds.”
While founded on adversity and self-resolution, Rhonda’s work also imbues a keen sense of humour and beauty. Weaving together wool, cotton, feathers, metal and beads, her sculptures are thoughtful and powerful totems for the past, present and future journeys of herself and her community. Her recent work, shown at Aboriginal and Pacific Art in Sydney in the group show Our Art Makes Us Happy (we hope it makes you happy too!) throughout October and early November 2020, continues her reflection of self, yet casts an eye on her childhood.
Rhonda says that she doesn’t have any photos of herself as a young girl, so she uses her sculptures as a way of remembering this time in her life, dressed up and innocently happy. This new series features herself along with men from her family and community depicted with moustaches and adorned in beautifully decorated clothing. Why moustaches you may ask? There’s no deeply complex concept at play here, for Rhonda they are just an addition to the works to make the men look “handsome and funny, so people will laugh and feel happy”.
Having twice won the highly prestigious NATSIAA’s Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award, first in 2013 for her work Rhonda, and again in 2015 for They come from nowhere, there is clearly a resonance to Rhonda’s work beyond its visual appeal. Her reimagining of self extends beyond her own struggles to encapsulate the adversities of her wider Yarrenyty Arltere community. With a sewing needle and cloth, Rhonda has helped build a new identity for herself, her family and her neighbours. One forged from tradition, innovation and above all else, hope.
Featured image: Rhonda Sharpe, I am Good Woman!. Bush dyed recycled woollen blanket embellished with wool, cotton and feathers, 72 x 100 x 15cm. COURTESY: The artist and Yarrenyty Arltere, Alice Springs