Pitjantjatjara elder Tommy Watson gained wide domestic and international exposure in an astonishingly short amount of time. Beginning his artistic career in 2002 his paintings were greeted with instant acclaim. His first works were created at the community arts centre in Irrunytju, also named Wingellina, located 12 kms south west of the tri-state border where the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia meet. This was just 44 kilometers east of his birthplace at Anamarapiti, circa 1935. Though he recalled visiting Papunya in his youth, observing the germination of an art movement there, it was not until later that he himself felt compelled to lay down his stories in paint.
Watson's debut at the 2002 Desert Mob show in Alice Springs was followed by his participation in a series of domestic group exhibitions in which his reputation gained momentum. Shortly thereafter, the sale of a major painting for $36,300, in an auction organised in 2003 to raise money for the struggling art centre, created a frenzy around his work. The catalogue for the sale was distributed widely amongst collectors. The demand for his paintings has outstripped supply ever since. On learning of the sale, Tommy Watson and his entourage travelled to Alice Springs where he painted 42 works for Red Sand Gallery. He subsequently entered into a representative relationship with art dealer, John Ioannou, the owner of Agathon Gallery. Their exclusive arrangement became the subject of much controversy, given that it was a breakaway from the established avenue of representation though community art centers. However, the caliber of work that Watson had consistently produced for Ioannou since that time was a testimony to the success of their professional relationship. Other artists working at Irrunytju were obviously impressed as, before long, the community council offered Ioannou the opportunity to exclusively manage and market all of the art centre’s art.
Other painters from this geographic region, the Spinifex people, have recorded the effect of the British nuclear testing in this country during the 1950’s in a somewhat similar manner to the way in which Watson expressed the history of the land in his own work. Grounded in his paintings are rockholes, mountain ranges, and creekbeds, however we see these transmitted in waves of light. Many of his paintings are, in fact, evocative of nuclear shock waves, light waves, and explosions. They meet the dual demands of the contemporary Indigenous Australian art market in that they tend towards abstract expressionism while conforming to traditional practice through layering and ‘dotting’. Watson’s paintings seem to shift and shimmer out of description. His paintings have been described as ‘incandescent’, an interesting and revealing use of a term defined as 'shining or glowing with heat’. Particularly apt, because ‘hot’ is the term that, again and again, was used to describe the artist himself.
Tommy Watson’s prominence was ultimately cemented when, in 2006, he was commissioned to create a permanent installation in the new Musee du Quai Branly, in Paris. The piece he created, Wipu Rockhole, was made using baked enamel on stainless steel and converted into a ceiling mural. It presents a radical transposition in medium as a traditional painting embedded in architecture.
Notably, his transition to stardom was actually far from contrived, or even self-driven. This is perhaps why the description of art star was so incongruous when applied to Watson. He preferred not to enter into art dialogue at all, a fact that was helped by his almost total reliance on his first language, Pitjantjatjara. The sense of great expectation surrounding Tommy Watson would have presented a challenge to any artist, yet he remained impervious to hype. He continued to live according to the traditional culture that he recorded in his paintings. His integrity was displayed in his opposition to painting works upon demand, ‘I paint works from my heart. I can’t do those works again … it can’t be real Dreaming if I do’ (Agathon Galleries). This transcendent philosophy is reflected in paintings that, at their best, are truly great works of art.