Sweet Poison in the wake of artist's hand

Sweet poison in the wake of artist's hand

There is no ‘big bang’ effect in the artworks of Judy Watson. Her methods are visual stealth and excavating the dark cracks of history to tell stories that are both contemporary and aboriginal.

…a seductive beautiful exterior with a strong message like a deadly poison dart that insinuates itself into the consciousness of the viewer without them being aware of the package until it implodes and leaks its contents…

These words might have come from an eloquent art critic but they are, in fact, Judy Watson herself describing her method for getting under the skin of those who view her art works. And it is the slow-release impact that, according to the writer who co-authored the book ‘Judy Watson blood language’ sets her work apart.

“There is an aesthetic seduction; once she’s got you in, there’s a bit of a barb, so it’s doubly powerful,” says Louise Martin-Chew, an arts writer from Brisbane, whose co-author is Judy herself: “Nobody makes works that look quite like Judy’s.”

She believes Watson’s originality comes from the way she chooses to work – process-driven and technical as much as conceptual – which is usually on the ground, down amongst all her materials, on rough concrete floors and in the bush.

While her methods avoid any notion of high art, the results can still be elevating and produce slow-fuse revelations. Watson’s canvases can act as a metaphor for the earth. Rainy heart country (2000), for example, starts with the shape of Lawn Hill Gorge, Watson’s grandmother’s country and the source of much of her personal inspiration. In headhunter (2006), the shape re-emerges as a dog’s head.

Martin-Chew notes that Watson’s art is less political than the sometimes confronting work of other contemporary Aboriginal artists where the impact is immediate. Watson’s canvases, instead, often invite viewers to imagine that their surface is only the top layer of deep sedimentation. The work makes demands on the beholder to recognise that from these layers, real episodes in the hidden and sometimes bloody history of Country can and do surface.

In Blood Language’s chapter entitled ‘Poison’, Martin-Chew assembles some of the works that seem to give expression to the powerful idea that history is buried but never dead-and-buried. Effective contemporary art, she says, speaks to you for years.

“There is a toughness and stoicism in Watson herself, her genes a witness to generations of such horrors,” Martin-Chew writes. “Yet she cloaks her anger and bile in gentle washes, subtlety that is beautiful, seductive, and buries its meaning deep, only to emerge inexorably in time.”

For Watson, creating art is tied to the slow, time-bound act of grieving. But her work extends way beyond her personal history. The dog’s-head figure referred to above re-appears in the shape of a tooth in Maori greenstone (pounamu). In Blood Language, Watson too celebrates the universal nature of substances, like ochre, which carry considerable mana (prestige), long used for medicinal, ceremonial and artistic purposes. Her works are a tribute to the longstanding trade in ochre (kokowai in Maori) within Australia and between the continent and New Zealand.

Watson has been invited to exhibit overseas, sometimes in a very permanent way such as in 2006 when the Musee du quai Branly in Paris sought her etchings for its glass walls. And her installation Walama forecourt at Sydney International Airport marks this point of entry and departure as Aboriginal land. The large, welded steel formations represent both fish fences from northern Australia and native huts. The latter again finds Watson busy plucking fragments from history and making them resonant in the here and now. The huts were noted in the diary of a man from the First Fleet (1788) at the site of the present airport.

The reason Watson’s public art has been so successful, Martin-Chew figures, is because she has incorporated so much of the history of the local people, for example, using the shell work of the woman of nearby La Perouse in the forecourt project.

Watson has also benefited from government patronage which has allowed her to take up artists residencies in Christchurch New Zealand, Barcelona Spain and New York. Travel has allowed her to transfer her storytelling to a global canvas, taking in what one writer calls ‘the broader geography of belonging’.

“The government is throwing us out there like little spears into the next place….and we sort of put a little puncture mark [in] and leak a bit of culture. And then somebody over there will shoot another one back so you get this spider-webbing, and it’s a great way of travelling and communicating with language and ideas,” Watson explained to Telinga Media.

We can only hope that Judy Watson continues to weave her global web of cultural exchange and that her little spears continue to find their mark far from home.

Watson, J & Martin Chew, L. (2009), Judy Watson blood language, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne


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