Judy Watson's diaphanous paintings seem to have been created in the midst of the heat hazes they depict. The imagery floats above a ground of burnt browns, sun bleached oranges and blood red expanses, shifting and pulsating with the hallucinatory energy, the drama and the history of the land. Her work emerges out of a relationship between her family history, a more general history of Aboriginal identity and politics, and her intuitive use of abstract painting itself.
Judy Watson's paintings are autobiographical. In discussing the art of Louise Bourgeois, Stuart Morgan comments that "autobiography allows the past to orient the future , permits the autobiographer to solve problems about her own nature, extends her power of expression, gives rise to questions about the analysis of self, broadens and continues to broaden the scope of the experiment and allows new questions to be broached".! For Judy Watson, this use of the autobiographical results in an art that is quite distinct from that of Bourgeois, but which nevertheless is underpinned by a conscious research into the self combined with an acknowledgement of the political implications of that process. Like many other urban Aboriginal artists , Watson has embarked on a process of self-education about her Aboriginal heritage. She has researched it, travelled to her 'country', spent time with her family, in order to understand more fully the history of her inherited culture and the genocide and personal tragedy that Aboriginal people have endured.
Watson is a direct descendant of the Wanyi clan of north western Queensland. During June and July 1991 she made a trip to Riversleigh Station near Mt Isa where she spent time with her grandmother, who was taken from the community as a child and has since returned. Watson's most recent series of paintings and prints has been inspired by this journey. One always experiences a displacement when one travels to an unfamiliar terrain. The landscape of north western Queensland may be familiar to readers in a generic sense, but the rich history of the area, and the belief system that structures that history is generally unknown. These paintings manifest the artist's desire to put herself in her family's place, to be opened up by its challenges. Travellers take with them their 'phenomenological' body, their view point or modus operandi of perception2 While one traveller may traverse the surfaces of a place, another will penetrate its crevices and the character of the people. Anthropologist, archeologist, map-maker and artist have different 'phenomenological' bodies. The paintings of Judy Watson reveal her quest as a deeply emotional one. These paintings seek to evoke the very sensations that she experienced in her rediscovered 'country'. Rather than narrate a linear history of events, collect an anthology of tools or record the meanings of various symbols, as some other visitor may do, Watson's paintings pulsate with the moods of the country, with the sense of time worn existence and with the strength of human passion within.
The brooding, barren expanse of brown, punctuated by black shadows, in Low Tide Walk, possesses the sense of a vast, unending area that stretches beyond the edges of the loose canvas. Though traversed many times, its rippling surface and abstract meanderings show no signs of intervention except for an irregular row of white dots.
The white dots may innocently invoke the image of the fishing net being cast into water, a daily routine that is bound up with notions of survival. On the other hand it can suggest a noose, and by implication, makes reference to Aboriginal deaths in custody. In this painting survival and death are pitched together as Watson overlays the everyday with the suppressed. Though her symbolism is not blatant, her messages are clear. She broaches new questions by allowing the past to orient the future.
Watson's work has an affinity with the paintings of Utopia artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye whose effusive, seductive expanses of dots also allude to the changing colours of the landscape. Both artists share the Aboriginal tradition of depicting the landscape as if one were above it. However, where Watson's imagery floats above the ground of her paintings, Kngwarreye's is hidden below the dots , at times completely obscured . While Kngwarreye's is a method of preserving secrets, Watson's is one of revealing that which has been suppressed.
In Stones and Bones, 1991, the colour of blood has been absorbed by the soil and the canvas is replete with the bleached white hard shapes of stones-perhaps bones stripped of life-that are echoed by areas of rich orange and red. This painting overlays the powerful forms and rich colour of the Australian landscape with the drama of a massacre. Shimmer, 1991, on the other hand, is a more gentle painting, intimating the shifting tones of the landscape under differing lights. One senses the currents of the air and the sands, as is the case in Listening Springs, 1991, which evokes the bubbling sources that feed the creek and country. This image is permeated with an energy of white dots that play with the shapes of the coolamon and with the lines that decorate cultural artefacts from the area. Two types of perspective are butted against one another: the horizon line that is created by the edge of the myriad dots, and the ground that is seen from above. In this, the painting suggests Watson’s phenomenological body, her process of looking at the horizon for significant landmarks to lead the way.
The image of the linear mound shape which stands with a magnificent nobility in Background 1989, is a common symbol in the artist’s oeuvre. It is the shape of a bone chamber, a burial site in which the bones of the dead, wrapped in bark, were placed. For Watson, it also derives from the shape left in the scarred tree when pieces are chopped out in order to make coolamons.
In a work entitled Guardians from 1990, the shape appears as a shrouded figure. In other earlier print, the shape is anticipated by figures that emerge from darkness. The mound, then, symbolizes the container and the contained, absence and substance. It operates in a way which is similar to the operation of symbols in Aborginal art – as a sign, but its meaning is not specific, rather it multifarious. The role of the mound shape suggests a familiar concept: what is absent is generally what is most sacred, like the absent name of the dead, or, more contemporaneously, the suppressed history of Aboriginal communities.
In the installation Groundwork, 1991-1992, the artist's unframed canvases lie on the floor over a sheet of painted black plastic with white dots along each side, suggesting a film strip. As one walks around this piece, one not only imagines the artist's own walking in north western Queensland, but becomes absorbed by the pools of muddy brown that conflate earth and water, the traceries of dots that suggest pathways that have been trodden many times before, or the bleached centre of an orange ground that seems to be in the process of forming a figure. However, these pools do not reflect us. As frames in a film, they offer us a glimpse of a whole and suggest that this whole story-of the massacres, the hanging tree, the tools, the burnt plains, the springs that maintain them-is too complex for summary in a single image. A narrative is implied between each canvas of this installation, just as the frames of a film add up to a story. The film analogy is extended by the sense that the installation is part fiction, part artistic licence and part truth
Aboriginal women artists have only recently begun to receive their due attention. The Aboriginal Women's Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last year examined the strength and variety of work by women, and broke down the artificial divisions of tribal = authentic, urban = inauthentic. All the artists in this exhibition were deeply concerned with their heritage, whether that meant reclaiming it or preserving it or effecting change. There are growing links and exchanges between artists in rural communities and those living in urban centres. Such links mean that the simple division between traditional and urban is becoming more and more inadequate as a tool for analysis or categorisation.
Hetti Perkins states in her introduction to the catalogue of the above show, "Aboriginal women artists are the voice of Aboriginal women in Australia today. They speak of our country, our lives and our achievements over the past two decades and they pay tribute to those before us".3 As such, there can be no one artist who is more 'authentic' than another. Judy Watson's paintings may not 'look Aboriginal' (whatever that might mean) to some viewers, but this does not lessen their engagement with Aboriginal causes and history. In a similar sense, they look like something more than pure abstract paintings, which equally does not diminish the competency with which the artist has used the forms of abstraction to evince her deeper concerns. Her work frustrates the divisions between urban and traditional.
By using the process of abstraction, Watson allows her paintings to fluctuate between references to particular family history and the more general concerns of aboriginality, without ever losing their evocative and imaginary sensations. To use abstraction in a manner that defies its conventional meaning within Western discourse (as a site of 'purity'), places Watson's art within the ambit of Aboriginal art as well as in the context of recent developments in abstract painting. Her paintings are in fact not really 'abstract', but use abstraction as a means to an end, as a way of presenting a dialogue between the particular and the general.
The key to Watson's work is the interchangeability of autobiography, aboriginality and the intuitive use of pigment, pastel and gouache to construct abstract surfaces. The implications of one are also embedded within the others. In other words, the viewer can gain a sense of the history of the land through the sensations that Watson achieves with paint. Equally, one has a sense of the artist 's emotional relationship to the landscape she paints, from an understanding of the stories upon which she draws. The richest comprehension of her quest, of course, stems from an understanding of all three aspects. Watson draws back the abstract haze that clothes the landscape, and reclaims it with an autobiographic precision in homage to her grandmother and the Wanyi people.
1. Stuart Morgan, "Escape Route", Louise Bourgeois Recent Work 1984-89, Riverside Studios, London, 1989
2. For a discussion of the phenomenological body of the traveller, see James Clifford, "A Poetics of Displacement: Victor Segalen", The Predicament of Culture Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, Harvard University Press, United States, 1988 ed by James Clifford
3. Hetti Perkins, "Introduction", Aboriginal Women's Exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1991, p 13