judy watson

bad and doubtful debts
Milani Gallery, Brisbane
28 May – 13 June 2009

Beneath the mesmerising pools of bleeding colour and carefully drawn shapes that occupied the un-stretched canvases of this exhibition, stared the question: who will answer for the mistakes and injustices of the past? We may know who carries the burden of tragedy but not its weight or how long it will be endured. Judy Watson cautioned us about the responsibility for the wounds we inflict on the environment and each other with her latest paintings and installation in the exhibition ‘Bad and doubtful debts’.

The paintings lined all the walls in one room, immersing the viewer in a flood of hues which tell of stories of the sea, and of water—a fundamental element and concept of Watson’s practice.1 Water bubbles up to the dry, dusty surface of her Country in north-western Queensland, and splits it open to expose the cool, lusciousness of its gorges. It is life flowing under the ground of the Waanyi people, once pulsing under the feet of her grandmother. Watson casts her history, memory and stories in the coloured water she pours onto her canvas landscapes. But this time she also casts a vivid picture of our recent dealings.

Spill, a canvas mottled beige, black and grey, is inscribed with brown pigment that forms land and coastlines. The painting resembles an old, weathered map accentuated by the unfinished edges of the cloth, typical of the raw quality sought by Watson. However, sailing along the work’s expanse of ocean is a beautifully rendered, realistic image of a modern cargo ship. The ship floats below the text, ‘Coral Sea’, while heading away from the vigorous splashes of black on the right-hand edge of the canvas. Watson seems to have conjured her experience of hearing the news of the oil spill disaster that reached Moreton Bay during her residency in early 2009 at the University of Queensland Research Centre on Heron Island. Meshing personal and cultural history with her present experience is a recurring approach for the artist; being surrounded by the sea has induced a heightened sensitivity to the traumas in its depths. The layering of a topographical map over her characteristic wash of shifting colour, brought together by the detailed illustration of the cargo ship and the muted palette, suggests that this is a contemporary problem indicative of a guilty past.

The exhibition felt anchored by Spill, but its meditation on water as a cultural signifier was elaborated in the remaining paintings. The thirty-one oil containers that were dumped into the sea were represented by a layered tumble of rectangles in Bad and doubtful debts and appeared as a scatter of white circles inside the vessel-shaped, land formation of Siev 36, the seekers. The title of this last painting and a fleet of six small boats circling the central form highlighted the issue of asylum seekers desperately trying to reach our shores. Watson alluded to the responsibility of our nation to humanely deal with this issue, which was punctuated by the ‘Siev 36’ tragedy that occurred recently in Australian waters. A lonely boat, painted white and guided by the Southern Cross amidst the dark blue waters of the canvas, hovered like a ghost at the bottom of Surveillance; a silent carrier of lost life in a pool of memory.

The importance of recording history to acknowledge the dark corners of human experience was explored by the installation upstairs at Milani Gallery, Salt in the wound (2008). This complex work, reinstalled for ‘Bad and doubtful debts’, dealt specifically with the Indigenous family history of the artist and was haunting in its recreation of events. A suspended windbreak of brush gently touched the floor, a shield of protection used by Watson’s great, great grandmother during a massacre by the Native Police.2 Wax ears nailed to the wall were a chilling shrine to the memory of Aborigines mutilated for gratuitous punishment.3 The central mound of salt on the floor was like a grave of solid tears, shed by innumerable Indigenous people who have suffered in these ways. The installation was a powerful evocation of the scars that mark individuals and groups at the hands of violent injustice.

Judy Watson reminded us that water and land witness and endure our occupation. She whispered an enquiry about our ‘bad and doubtful debts’ through the intensity and careful construction of her paintings and installation in this exhibition. The arresting physicality of these works ensured her voice will linger long after their viewing, so that we may never forget what we have done. 


1. Martin-Chew, L., Watson, J., Blood Language, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2009.

2. Roberts, T., Frontier Justice—A History of the Gulf Country to 1900, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2005, p.232-234.

3. Ibid, p.232.