Descended from the Waayi people of northwest Queensland, Judy Watson was born in Mundaberra and pursued intensive studies at art colleges in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. Her personal exploration of her Aboriginal heritage through the matrilineal side of her family involved travels with relatives through traditional country, listening to their histories and Dreaming stories, absorbing the feeling of country and its inherent spirituality. She has described this experience as 'learning from the ground up'. It brought home to her the necessity of throwing off negative stereotypes that become attached to her people and bringing awareness to the rich sources of knowledge and empowerment available to them through cultural reclamation. In her later travels around the globe, Watson extended this insight to the situation of Indigenous people of other countries and expresses in her artworks, universal political, social and environmental concerns.
Watson’s work is always autobiographical. She records varying impressions, perspectives and responses to her life experience. This is not a romantic fascination with self however, as Watson’s focus is predominantly outward looking. Her subjectivity provides the barometer, registering her interactions with the world through sensation, emotion and intellect, as she engages with and articulates her experience and endeavors to recreate that experience for her audience. She manipulates substances, surfaces and pigments to provide a tactile, often raw, sense of encounter that provides her with a continuing source of discovery.
Recurring themes in Watson’s work are Aboriginal history, women’s stories, the landscape and significant world events, particularly those demanding awareness and action. She often uses images borrowed or found in situ, always respectfully veiled when supplied from a sacred or ancient tradition. In her paintings, pigments ground from rocks are rubbed into un-primed, un-stretched canvas. Underlying forms, such as rock surfaces, are traced onto the picture plane with fluid and pooling paint. This incremental building of layers never conceals its manufacture, revealing itself as a subtle layering that serves to draw the viewer into amorphous depths. Figures and shapes are introduced within and upon these layers. Shadowy presences emerge to assert their story or, at times, to exert a protective influence, like ancestral spirits. Objects rise to the foreground through stark outlines, sometimes dotted in the desert style or given the swirling motion of spirited transit. The physicality of place is evoked and the particularity of specific events, emerge within this temporal unfolding
Watson works across all media, though particularly painting and printmaking, and has created many public, site specific, artworks that emphasize the presence and history of Aboriginal Australia. Her contribution to contemporary landscape painting is substantial and unique. Her constructed layers of meaning and memory, fused with affective and sensory impressions, build a sense of anima-mundi, the earth as an all-encompassing living, feeling soul. Such a belief is in accord with Aboriginal tradition where connection to country lies at the core of identity. Many of the stories that inform her works are those of women. Watson acknowledges the crucial role they play in many families and communities.
Judy Watson won the prestigious Moet Chandon Prize in 1995 and has gone on to build a solid and impressive career. Other awards include the Work on Paper Award at the 23rd Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, and the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2006 the year following her selection to design architectural elements the Musee de Quai Branly in Paris, a museum devoted to indigenous cultures around the world. This recognition is matched by a number of international awards including one in Italy where she participated in an archaeological dig. Her layered technique enables her to create works in which she aligns present events with the recent and distant past. While rooted in her Aboriginality her artistic vision is very much part of the post-modern ‘quotational’ critique. In what has been described as an ‘alchemical approach’, Watson takes the bewildering array of influences that assail the modern individual, as her base materials, transforming them into poetry. (Snell, 2002: 484).