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Judy Watson's Artist in Residence at Griffith University culminated in an exhibition of work produced over the three month period of her stay.
Judy Watson has been described as an artist for whom, "being a woman and being Aboriginal are the departure points for exploring the experience ... of isolation and confinement within the skin of physical reality" (Eyeline 9, 35). It hardly needs mentioning that to know something about the artist is to know something about her work. And even though Judy herself will testify to the various levels of interpretation of her art, as a Goori male I can but merely approach an understanding.
Her work dares you to apply your preconceived notions about art to the creations of the Black urban artist. It allows you interpretation but interpretation solidly bound within the expressed experiences of this Aboriginal woman who carries a past conceived in the womb of truth. So, far from being a "what you see is what you get" frame, it is work which moves one's mind to entertain a sense of latent force and energy linked to an undoubted affirmation of culture.
Judy's A Sacred Place for these Bones (lithograph) could remind one of Platapus Lives Alone by Kamilaroi artist Biggibilla, if only in the sense that each captures the same vibrant tensions of their Aboriginality. For there is a candidness about Judy, and in like manner she invites you to appreciate her work. It is this same straight-forwardness which the Brisbane Black community has come to associate with her as much as her bone chamber imagery which recurs throughout this exhibition. Consequently, contrasting images using the bone chamber motif abound: escape/entrapment, life/spirit, alone/togetherness, respect/disenchantment.
Curiously, Judy's work drew the response from one young Brisbane Murri female artist that her work sometimes lacks that life-togetherness or interconnectednesss one finds in a Trevor Nicholls or a Lin Onus. However, talking with Judy or listening to her encourage an aspiring Murri artist compels the casual observer to ponder closely the affirmations of spirituality emanating from her work.
No doubt that forced withdrawal - either self imposed or institutional - which has been the experience of the Black Australian race has influenced Judy's development as an artist. Given the "extremely uncomfortable experience" as she says, of being denied her Aboriginality by a lone Johnny-come-lately1 lecturer when she was studying in Hobart, she has had to endure a common history faced by many of our people past and present. The hideous irony is that this migloo (white) attempt of cultural genocide is typical of the appropriator using the oldest tactic to combat guilt in the history of Western religion: the best form of defense is attack.
This raises the significant question of white artists adopting Aboriginal symbolism and imagery. Not since those oppressive school days when Hugh Sawrey depictions of heroic colonialist expansion graced the walls of office and classroom has there been such a subtle assault on Black sensibility. The portrayals of blacks on the periphery of consciousness somehow seemed to fit with the popular institutionalised "otherness" with which we as Black children - whether Reserve, Mission or Housing Commission - were assaulted. While Sawrey obviously made little attempt to give feature to the Blacks in his Explorer series, the current trend by a group of white artists to incorporate Aboriginal imagery into their work strikes as an even more absurd imbalance of perspective.
To say that her art is her lite would be an understatement about Judy Watson; and it is on this point which critics falter in their judgements of Black creativity. The Black artist endeavours to bring to her work an expression of the deeply-felt emotions which other forms of conveyance are incapable of accommodating (that is at least in an aesthetically appealing mode). So one finds Judy speaking often of her experimentation. Here her experience and training in various artistic pursuits has helped in fostering a distinctive approach to examining her own heritage. The development of the bone chamber image used so prevalently in the Griffith University exhibition is a prime example of this. Undoubtedly we are witnessing, through her heritage-themes, an affirmation of that common vision foreshadowed emphatically by the frequent allusions to ancestral figures.
1. "Johnny-come-lately” is sometimes used in the Black community to refer to an unexpected visitor, usually at lunchtime - thus it pertains to a visiting lecturer.