˜Watson is a master of invention and arguably, the outstanding painter of the Western Desert ¦.Each painting tells a specific story, but the most impressive feature is the artist’s use of colour¦. Like Matisse, Watson knows that one may have warm and cool shades of red, warm and cool shades of blue. But he knows this instinctively, without any formal training. What he knows cannot be verbalised, and cannot be taught, yet no one could see these paintings and not be convinced of their profundity.’
John McDonald, Art Critic, Sydney Morning Herald
Yannima Tommy Watson is a senior Pitjantjatjara elder and Law Man of the Karimara skin group. He was born around 1935 at Anamarapiti, Western Australia, in one of the country’s most remote desert regions. As a young man he lived a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle with his family, later becoming a stockman around Mount Ebenezer, then Yuendumu.
His artistic career began in 2001 at the Irrunytju Art Centre with paintings inspired by his ancient Dreamings. Each, while a powerful statement of title to land, is distinguished by a stunning colourful abstraction where the celebration of country and his relation to it is generated using bright layers of thickly applied acrylic paint. These are densely dotted in painterly or linear application. Importantly, no iconographic form or colour that might give insight into ritual knowledge is used. And while Watson’s totem is Caterpillar, it is a subject about which he never speaks. Instead, the titles of his paintings describe place names or encounters of personal and private significance. These include sites in his red desert homelands, which are to be found scattered throughout the thousands of square miles that track south and west from Uluru in the Northern Territory to Irrunytju in Western Australia.
Parallels in Watson’s position as a pioneer of a new art practice can be made with artist Wassily Kandinsky who like Watson, created a brilliant abstraction of his own inspiration. Both chose a language that went beyond the accepted art forms of the mainstream art expression of their times, Kandinsky in rejecting the limitations of realism and Watson in rejecting the restrictions associated with using the iconographic symbols of indigenous art practice. From a perceptual standpoint, Watson’s colour is described as ˜incandescent’ by Judith Ryan, Indigenous Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is applied with dramatic as well as subtle impact in various combinations and tones.
Today, Watson paints at his studio in Alice Springs. He works from a seated cross legged position. His hand moves across the canvas in a rhythmic and purposeful way, that expresses the artists sensitive reflection and confident articulation of his connection to subject.
John Ioannou notes: ˜For him the process of painting is like a meditation. He works as if in a trance¦and while he does he drops in and out of song¦¦and when he is not painting he lives as if in another world¦it’s a deeply spiritual and cultural place, with his attention and consciousness turned inwards, as if in singular contact with his ancestors¦.his frame of mind seems to be in the same place as would be that of his people some 1000 years ago.
Tommy Watson is an internationally distinguished pioneer of contemporary indigenous abstraction in Australia with a genius that lies in the seamless artistic finesse with which he merges both his country and Dreaming. Miraculous imaginative expressions, his paintings resonate with the authority of his intimate and spiritual knowledge of place.
Tommy Watson’s work is held in the collections of the Musee du Quai Branly Paris, Art Gallery of NSW, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia, Western Australian Art Gallery, South Australian Art Gallery, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Marie Geissler, Grad. Cert. Arts (Art History & Theory), Sydney University, BSC, ANU