Maggie Watson began painting at 60 years of age and became the senior female artist at Yuendumu, 300 kilometres north west of Alice Springs by the time of her death some 19 years later in 2004. Located in the southern reach of Warlpiri land, Yuendumu had become the main community in which Warlipri people were settled after the 1950’s.
Maggie was a leader amongst a group of women artists who began to challenge the dominance of men’s acrylic painting in the Central Desert region from the mid 1980’s. The emergence of these women in Yuendumu and simultaneously in Utopia (amongst Anamtjerre and Alyawarre peoples) challenged the notion that men were the sole guardians of the visual life of these communities. The historical evolution of the movement of which Maggie was part, began with the encouragement of more permanent painting techniques in the 1970’s in both Yuendumu and Papunya, followed by the introduction of acrylic paints in the 1980’s. As the women artists progressed from painting ritual objects to painting on boards as a source of revenue they gained a wider audience. When the Warlukurlangu Artists cooperative was establishedin Yuendumu in the mid 1980’s, Maggie became the leader of a group of women whose work was included in the community’s first exhibition of at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs in 1985. Their first commercial exhibition was held in 1987 at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries and in the following year Maggie’s paintings were included in the exhibition Yuendumu, Paintings of the Desert at the South Australian Museum. This exhibition toured nationally and internationally.
Foremost amongst the major themes depicted by Maggie Watson, Dorothy Napangarti Robertson and other female Yuendumu artists is the important Warlpiri women’s Dreaming of the Karntakurlangu. This epic tale recounts the travel of a large group of ancestral women, the hair string belts they made to carry their babies and possessions, and the magical emergence of digging sticks which, quite literally, thrust themselves out of the ground before the women during the Dreaming, thereby equipping them for their vast travels. As the women danced their way across the desert in joyous exultation they clutched the digging sticks in their outstretched hands. Dancing in a long line they created important sites and encountered other Dreamings. Hundreds of these women travelled on the long journey first toward the east, then to the north, then south collecting plants and foods with both medicinal and ceremonial uses. They visited many sites, resting at some, going underground at others and later re-emerged morphing into different, sometimes malevolent, beings. These powerful ancestral women were involved in initiation ceremonies and used human hair-string spun and rubbed with special red ochre and fat as part of their magic just as women do to this day when performing ceremonies that connect them with their Jukurrpa. The digging sticks are regarded as symbolically manifest as desert oaks growing in their homeland near Mina Mina, a central location for much of the story that relates to Warlpiri lands west of Yuendumu. It is this narrative that preoccupied her work and was most superbly illustrated, in what is considered her Magnum Opus, Digging Stick Dreaming 1995.
Maggie Watson’s paintings are characterised by the linear precision created by dots applied in alternating bands of colour. When viewed in varying arrays across the canvas these meticulously applied textured striations impart a rhythmic trancelike quality thereby evoking the movement of lines of women as they dance, and their repeated chanting during ceremony. Maggie’s willingness to adopt the shiny surfaced acrylic paints was founded on the Warlpiri’s response to shimmering surfaces associated with beauty and reminiscent of the ancestral beings completely beautified upon their original emergence. In time her use of flamboyant colour and richly textured surfaces became the hallmark of her paintings. Her works were colourful but never garishly so, and often featured subtle pastel shades such as soft yellows, splashes of a luscious turquoise and the clear blue reminiscent of a summer sky. Her best works had a strong painterly quality and, while meticulously executed, they imparted that joyous sense of abandon.
Maggie Watson created paintings for 15 years but was never a prolific artist. She worked only sporadically for the Warlurkulangu Art Centre in Yuendumu after the formative period in the late 1980’s. The vast majority of her limited output was produced while working with Peter van Groessen, the husband of one of her daughters who maintained studio working spaces in Adelaide and Alice Springs from the beginning of the 1990’s. These paintings were principally sold through Kimberley Art in Melbourne and the Chicago Gallery that they maintained. They include almost all of her larger works that have been responsible for her growing reputation since 2000 as the most successful Aboriginal female artist after Emily Kngwarreye. Her works have been featured in many major collections, including The National Gallery of Australia and the Musee National Des Arts Africain et Oceaniens in Paris.
Maggie was a major participant in the 7 x 3 m canvas that was commissioned in 1991 and exhibitied in the 1993 European touring exhibition Aratjara - Australian Aboriginal Art, curated by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen in Dusseldorf, West Germany, and her work was included in the Australian National Gallery Warlpiri collection commissioned in 1992. Following her death Maggie Watson’s work was exhibited in the major exhibition Colour Power – Aboriginal Art Post 1984, at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Maggie Napanagardi Watson’s work first appeared at auction in 1996. By 2000 nine works had been offered with eight sold at an average price of $18,295. While her sales during the last decade have exceeded $2 million her works have only appeared at public auction 79 times with a 66% success rate and these have ranged in price from as little as $3,035 for a small 45 x 60 cm work at Shapiro auctioneers in 2003 to $348,000 for Mina Mina Dreaming 1995 which, broke the artists record in 2008 against a backdrop of overall market decline. This sale relegated Digging Stick Dreaming 1995 into second place. Both were commissioned works purchased through Peter van Groessen and originally sold through Kimberley art in Melbourne.
While Maggie Watson's status as an artist of supreme interest is undisputed, her sales results have been seriously compromised by the repeated appearance Digging Stick Dreaming 1995, which has been described her Magnum Opus. When originally sold at Lawson~Menzies in November 2005 it sold to a Rod Menzies consortium for $216,000 including buyer's premium, her highest recorded price at the time. It sold again two years later for her current second highest recorded price, $336,000 but has appeared several times since. In fact it has been sold and resold 5 times and this one work set her second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth highest recorded prices at public auction.
Maggie's reputation as one of the most important female artists of the Central Desert was essentially established by non-art-centre provenanced works, by the galleries that originally sold them, and by the institutions that have included these works in thematic exhibitions. The value of her paintings have increased dramatically since 2000 when large canvases, produced during the mid 1990s based on her Bush Mushroom stories, sold for roughly $20,000. In March 2014, for example, a major rendition of Mushroom Dreaming 1995 with art centre provenance sold for $66,000 at Deutscher and Hackett's sale of the Ainsworth Collection (Lot 86). Though listed as her 14th highest result, it was the highest price recorded for a work created for Warlurkurlangu Artists, her community art centre.
Maggie Watson had an excellent success rate of 68% without ever seeing a dip in the appreciation of her works at auction until 2012, when only four works were offered and not one sold. In 2013 only two sold of four offered. 2007 was her best year with seven of eight works selling for a total value of $556,200. In that year, the only object that appeared was a lovely painted coolamon which achieved $14,400 in Lawson Menzies November sale (Lot 42). However 2008 saw her record topple. While only three of the six works offered were successful at sale (with her success rate falling by 3%), her total sales topped $2 million for the first time. She was the sixth best performing artist in 2009 and eighth in 2010. Her stocks have been on the slide since 2012, yet she remains second only to Emily Kngwarreye amongst female Aboriginal artists, an altogether remarkable fact given the sheer number of female artists who have emerged since the eary 1990s. This fact alone should have all those interested in ‘investment’ sit up and take note.
Watson’s major works will continue to command premium prices over works by other female artists of the region and period. Given their rarity, they could continue to set auction records at each subsequent offering. Her medium sized works are most definitely undervalued in the current market and, due to their relative scarcity, should be seriously considered by anyone intent on putting together an important collection. Her presence would not only significantly enhance the representation of female desert artists, but would also address any overabundance of works by the more prolific Eastern Anmatjerre and Alyawerre artists from Utopia and the surrounding regions as well as the burgeoning Pintupi and Pitjantjatjara women’s art emanating from the Western Desert and beyond.