‘As an artist there are things you have no control over, I like that’

<span>The Judy Watson Exhibition <em>mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri</em> at the Queensland Art Gallery.</span><span>Photo: Chloe Callistemon</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Y1Iu7pr9LptYoKDCWcoOlg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e15ddc106f52ce73dbff2cde 30e91e00″ data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Y1Iu7pr9LptYoKDCWcoOlg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e15ddc106f52ce73dbff2cde30e9 1e00″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=The Judy Watson Exhibition mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri at the Queensland Art Gallery.Photo: Chloe Callistemon

Curator Hetti Perkins once described Judy Watson’s work as a “tender trap,” due to its “seductive beauty” and ability to convey powerful, often painful messages. This is evident at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), which showcases four decades of practice in more than 120 works by the Mundubbera-born, Meeanjin/Magandjin/Brisbane-based artist. It is the most comprehensive overview of Watson’s work to date.

Even the title of the exhibition, mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri, has a poetic beauty that belies its bite: in the language of Watsons’ Waanyi ancestors, it translates as “tomorrow the tree will grow stronger.” The phrase is taken from a poem by her son, Otis Carmichael: “now the tree is cut down. tomorrow the tree will grow stronger and fight the ax that cut it down. our people are biting back.”

Visitors’ first encounter with the exhibition is a striking installation just past the gallery entrance: a curved red slice, like a smile, painted on a white floor plinth, with a thick layer of white salt in the center. At the back, which forms a kind of hanging windbreak, are thickets of cut branches. The afternoon before the opening, visitors pause to admire the arrangement.

Titled salt in the woundit refers to an episode in which Watson’s great-great-grandmother Rosie escaped a Waanyi massacre by Indigenous police at Lawn Hill Station in north-west Queensland when she was a young woman – a story passed down matrilineally, until Watson heard it from her grandmother Grace .

The gash, painted in red ochre, represents the bayonet wound Rosie suffered while hiding in a windbreak with another girl. The two rolled down the hill and hid in a waterway, completely submerging themselves by placing stones on their bellies and using hollow reeds as breathing tubes.

Rosie bore the bayonet wound for the rest of her life, and Watson has said that the ocher gash in her installation “is the open wound with the salt in it, which penetrates for generations.” A cross-generational trauma throughout history and our families.”

Previous presentations of the work have included an installation of forty pairs of wax-cast ears, nailed to the gallery wall – an eerie reminder of documented colonial violence at the same location. At QAG, this installation is tucked away in the main space of the gallery, a truth bomb ready to explode as the viewer turns the corner.

On the wall behind it salt in the wound, dozens of small stones cast in bronze are arranged in the shape of the continent. The stones were originally displayed – in a different configuration – as part of the historic Australian exhibition for the 1997 Venice Biennale. At QAG, the stones form a “partial mass murder map” documenting the sites where Australia’s first peoples were massacred by settlers . “Not all, because I didn’t have enough bronze bricks,” says Watson. A list of sites can be found in Watson’s 2016 video the names of placesalso part of the exhibition.

Watson is relaxed and modest when she talks about her work, frequently mentioning other artists who contributed to various pieces, as collaborators or studio assistants, and praising the installation team. She points to a water stain on the ocher interior salt in the wound, and marvels: “I’ve never experienced this before; this time the salt started to cry.” Somehow, magnesium salt has contaminated the regular salt typically used for work, but she seems happy.

Related: Venice Biennale 2024: Australian Pavilion to Explore Colonization, Incarceration and First Nations Resilience

“I might use it again – it adds another element to it,” she says. “As an artist you have certain things under your control, and there are other things you have no control over. And that’s what I like.”

There is something of the alchemist in Watson, who was introduced to art through printmaking at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education in Toowoomba in the late 1970s, and studied lithography (a method of printmaking that relied on chemistry) at University of Tasmania and subsequently at Monash University. in Gippsland, Victoria. The canvases for which she is perhaps best known owe much of their color, texture and patterns to chemical reactions – planned and unplanned.

Watson often uses indigo (which she fell in love with during a residency in Italy) and shibori, a technique of folding and tying fabrics to influence color patterns, which she adopted from her younger sister, who studied textile production. “I just remember seeing it go into the indigo dye, and when it came out it turned green, and then suddenly it changed as it oxidized and turned blue,” Watson says. “It’s often the things that change that I respond to.”

Lithography has profoundly influenced her practice in other ways as well: she attributes her love of collaboration to the atmosphere and process of the printmaking studio, and describes drawing as the source of all her work. In her 1997 series our hair in your collections, our bones in your collections And our skin in your collections (all on display in the exhibition) she artistically ‘repatriated’ Waanyi items located in the British Museum by tracing their contours.

Visitors will notice recurring motifs in Watson’s prints on paper and canvas works, including rope and rope, leaves and grasses, spines (of plants, fish or spears), and the shapes of shields, termite mounds and dilly bags – all based on Waanyi Country and culture. Similarly, a breathtaking installation in the gallery’s central water mall features a collection of bronze-cast shapes that resemble termite mounds, fish traps and upside-down dilly bags.

Watson says a return trip to her ancestral land, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) Gorge National Park, with her family in 1990 profoundly shaped her art practice: “My uncle Ken Isaacson showed it to me: on the ground there were stone tools everywhere; in the sides of the gorges there was rock carving and painting. There are important sites everywhere. So I’ve done a lot of work [about the idea] of looking at the ground, or learning from the ground up.”

The exhibition, chaired by Katina Davidson (Kullilli/Yuggera), the gallery’s curator of Indigenous Australian art, is organized around four themes that encompass Watson’s key ongoing concerns: identity, the archive, feminism and environmentalism.

In conversations, Watson is unequivocal and emphatic on these topics. In her art she is more subtle. Her ideas often slowly penetrate the viewer’s consciousness: you may be drawn to the beauty or striking aesthetic of a work from afar, and only notice the details and layers of meaning upon closer examination.

I ask Watson if she has ever been tempted by other forms of advocacy, and she smiles: “There are many other ways to do that. But there’s something about working with the body – channeling it through my body – that feels good too. And it’s not like people will understand things right away. But that’s okay. I also don’t understand a lot of things right away… and what I don’t understand is what I find most interesting and takes me on a different journey.”

Leave a Comment