Concealed histories, ancestral Country and the archive are central to the Brisbane-based Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s practice. Water, a key natural element, has also been a constant stream of inspiration. Watson’s fascination with this vital resource is visible in the surface treatment of her unstretched paintings and in the metaphorical ideas of water as a carrier, a transmitter, or even a representative of the human body – a vessel comprised mostly of water.
In drawing on water, the shadow of a sweeping frond in all its ethereal beauty is suspended in an infinite pool of time and space, framed only by the raw, feathered edge of the canvas. The foliage floats in the ebb and flow of phthalo blue, turquoise and ultramarine pigments, applied in layers that ripple like water lapping at shorelines. With the canvas laid on the ground during the work’s creation, the quenched surface pulls the pigment into natural pools as it dries, creating peaks and troughs in a horizonless landscape.As in many of her large-scale paintings, there is no distinction between time and space. In this way, Watson’s paintings are in sharp distinction to the landscape-painting canon of frontier Australia.
The ghostly presence of a delicately woven net floats in the intensely rich field – a field not unlike those of the minimalist colour field and abstract expressionist painters of the mid-twentieth century – hinting at Watson’s intrigue with museum collections, and exposing what she refers to as ‘concealed histories’. Australian Indigenous material culture – found, drawn and photographed by Watson while visiting museum collections nationally and overseas – feature as recurring iconography through her oeuvre. In her training as a printmaker during the 1970s, Watson experimented with incorporating found objects via a range of media, including photographic transfers and rubbings. This conglomeration of techniques and materials still forms the basis of her practice.
Water is the lifeblood of the land and a connection to the artist’s matrilineal line, to her Waanyi ancestors. The Waanyi are ‘running water people’, whose traditional lands in north-western Queensland are home to Boodjamulla, Lawn Hill Gorge. She says, ‘It was Boodjamulla, the ancestral rainbow serpent who formed the contours of the Country and continues to live in the waters of the Gorge’. The natural limestone-faced gorge is fed by waters that flow all year round, sustaining life since time immemorial. The ‘ancient, subterranean water bubbles up through fissures and springs in the limestone, feeding the country’. Grace Isaacson, Watson’s Waanyi grandmother, was born in 1912 in the heart of this country, at Riversleigh Station, known for its abundance of fossils. Sri Lankan–born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje has mused that limestone is ‘the reef of memory’, a reminder of the station’s bygone inland sea. For Watson, water retains memories of the land and its people through a type of scarification or osmosis, having continuously regenerated her Country and sustained thousands of generations of its people.
Quiet in its power, drawing on water symbolises this element’s constant state of flux, from cutting new paths through rock to form monumental chasms, to compacting organic matter into fossilised seabeds – all under the unrelenting gravitational pull of the moon.
Katina Davidson is a Brisbane based artist and curator with cultural ties to the Deebing Creek and Purga Missions, and the Kullilli and Yuggera people. She is Acting Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.
 Conversation with the artist, 10 March 2019.
 Judy Watson and Louise Martin-Chew, Judy Watson: Blood Language, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2009, p.13.
 Julie Ewington, ‘Water’, in Kate Hamersley (ed.), Sacred Ground Beating Heart: Works by Judy Watson 1989–2003, exhibition catalogue, John Curtin Gallery, Perth, and Asialink Centre, Melbourne, 2003, p.46.
 Judy Watson, email to the author, 11 April 2019.
 Judy Watson, ‘Artist statement, Indigo and Ochre exhibition’, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 2016.
 Judy Watson, email to the author, 12 April 2019, referencing Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost (2000).