The longer one spends with this book, the more intense and varied the experience. A hazy impression from exhibitions past that Tommy Yannima Watson painted everything red “ with surprising patches of oppositional colour…a ring of white, splashes of blue, a sand-blasted curve of yellow or green…breaking through “ just isn’t the case.
Mind you, even SMH critic John McDonald in the brief text is quoted as acknowledging Watson’s ability to mix warm and cool shades of red…instinctively.
But it required the artist’s dealer and translator, John Ioannou to add the interpretation that red is essentially the colour of the initiated man in the Desert: From the red head-band Tommy wears through all his paintings, red is a recognition of the blood spilt and ceremonies he’s undertaken, and the authority that comes from them.
The book then offers an almost infinite variety of dotted patterns “ rhythmic and textured, and sung as they were painted “ spread across countless canvases that also succeed in communicating the old man’s knowledge of a deep diversity of Pitjanjatjara stories that go back to the flooding of his tribe’s southern spinifex country when the ice last melted 10,000 years ago.
The 76 year old Watson’s 10 year painting career is something special, even in the torrent of energised art that’s emerged from the APY lands in that time.
But this is much more than a coffee-table tome for colourists. It’s actually been necessary to put this man’s art before a public largely denied sighting of it since 2005. That’s when Watson chose to leave the remote Irrunytju community where he’d ended up after early nomadism and mission life, followed by labour at Mt Ebenezer Station and Papunya, and paint for himself and his family. After an unhappy period attached to a gallery in Alice Springs, he fell in with Ioannou’s Agathon Gallery, and fell out with the community art centre system. It’s retaliated by black-balling his work from purchase by State galleries and entry into the NATSIAA prizes since.
Should the ACCC take a look?
The book quietly makes its point with an opening chapter entitled, Early Collectors 2001-2004. It lists the public galleries that bought those early works. But the riches thereafter must all be in unidentified private hands “ which, of course, is sad for the rest of us. For one can argue that the definitive, personal Yannima Watson style has emerged since 2004. Marie Geissler, the text’s co-author and an Agathon Director, has observed his increasing freedom of line, his developing overlay, his sensitivity in the use of paint and his boldness of execution. I’d say he’s been going places no other indigenous artist has gone, and one can genuinely make comparisons with the profound inner sense of self that emerged in Abstract Expressionist work by Kandinsky, Gorki and Rothko “ heavily influenced as it was by tribal art and primitive art from Eastern Europe.
And, the marketplace has reflected this sort of appreciation of his work. For in May 2007, Tommy Watson became the highest priced living indigenous artist when he put a canvas up for auction at Lawson Menzies that sold for $240,000.
Which make sit all the more regrettable that the big Adelaide Festival exhibition last year, Tjukurpa Pulkatjara “ The Power of the Law, which described itself as A benchmark selection of works by artists from the APY and Ngaanyatjarra Lands, didn’t contain a single Tommy Watson “ a man for whom the Law is a vital element in just about every canvas he’s ever painted.
Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson is compiled and photographed by Ken McGregor, the text translated into French by Flore Gregorini, and published by Macmillian