AGSA's acquisition of two paintings by Judy Watson from Tarnanthi 2019

Born in 1959 in the coastal hinterland of Queensland, Brisbane-based artist Judy Watson has forged a prestigious international career as a multi-disciplinary artist. Her practice is informed by her Waanyi ancestry and her ongoing investigation of archival collections, objects and histories in Australia and abroad.

Following a trip to Japan, in 2019 Watson presented a solo exhibition entitled bodies of water and melting snow at Brisbane’s Milani Gallery. The exhibition addressed ecological concerns associated with climate change and water sovereignty, as well as the issue of Aboriginal cultural materials held overseas, an area of abiding concern to her.

From this body of work, the Gallery has acquired two paintings, string over water (alkurrji kingkarri wanami) and spine and teeth (mundirri banga mayi), both of which embody the artist’s oeuvre through literal and figurative assemblages drawn from contemporary and historical material, culture, memory and nature.

Exploring water and its many guises, string over water (alkurrji kingkarri wanami) represents connections across time and space through the rendering of an intertwined string. The string, handmade by Watson, floats over undulating blue waters as a tangible link to the unbroken practice of string making.

The second painting, spine and teeth (mundirri banga mayi), is a monoprint of the former work, created by pressing the canvas surfaces together while wet. The effect is a mottled blue wash on which the artist has combined images of plants and drawings of Aboriginal cultural objects to symbolise the strength and resilience of her people.

Colour is also significant, as ‘blue is the colour of memory’, according to the artist, as well as of water. As Watson explains:

‘Waanyi people are known as “running water people” because of the inherent quality of the water in their country’.

These striking blue palettes resemble palimpsests in which the layers of paint and markings appear on and beneath the surface while also seeping through the canvas itself.

The objects Watson has chosen to depict are recurring motifs, referred by her as ‘tools of survival’ and which represent the many layers of meaning and connections found in her work. Deeply inspired by her matrilineal lineage, Watson’s paintings navigate both the past and present to reveal hidden Aboriginal histories of places and objects and bring to light current and enduring issues.

Gloria Strzelecki is Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at AGSA. Celia is Project Officer, Exhibition Planning and Design, Tarnanthi. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 37.

1 Statement by the artist in 2007, in Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors, NGA,