Aboriginal artist Yannima Tommy Watson is a man of few words, but his vibrant works literally shout at audiences from the Muse du Quai Branly in Paris and Australia’s most prestigious art galleries.
The man widely regarded as Australia’s most distinguished indigenous artist whose style has been compared to Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky has, however, decided to hold his last solo exhibition titled “Kutju Wara” or “The Last One”.
Sitting quietly among his works at Sydney’s Agathon gallery, Watson, who holds the indigenous art auction record for a living artist, let his manager and interpreter do the talking.
“He is getting old and tired, he wants this exhibition to be his last,” John Ioannou told Reuters.
“I’m sure he will continue to do small works, but the days of the big works are finished. He has slowed down considerably in the last five years or so.”
Art is deeply ingrained in Aboriginal culture as a way to mark territory, time and tell stories about the Dreamtime, or how they believed the world was created.
Watson uses thickly applied acrylic paint to create works that are a riot of colour, abstracts of places that have a special meaning to him.
Born around 1935 in one of Australia’s remotest desert regions, Watson, whose exact age is unknown, lived a semi-nomadic life with his family, walking thousands of kilometres (miles) from waterhole to waterhole.
He worked as a cattlehand, or stockman, in the deserts west of the famed Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock for a while before taking up painting as a career in 2001.
Watson worked closely with some renowned desert artists of the 1970s and 1980s who painted their stories, largely with indigenous symbols, as a record for the younger generation.
But Watson shied away from traditional sacred images, because he, like many others, believed his predecessors died prematurely because they allowed non-Aboriginals to see these symbols.
“Tommy is quite free in his style, he will not paint traditional sacred images. He and the majority of the people in the land thought two of the artists died young because they had shown the whites their sacred images,” Ioannou said.
Watson’s abstracts, however, have their own sacred imagery, but that is something the artist will not reveal.