Just before the Easter break this year I visited Judy Watson’s new temporary studio at the State Library of Queensland. One enters through a sliding door into a huge space. The view is magnificent: a two-storey glass wall overlooks the meandering Brisbane River, the rising city humming along its northern bank. Several large canvasses are already in varying stages of progress. They are spread out on top of black plastic laid down to protect the floor from powdered pigments. It is a vast room and at the other end of it I see four or five long benches, empty save for two with a few sketchbooks and pencils. In such a huge space the artist’s materials look sparse. Hmm, no paint brushes.
In the lead-up to the opening of the new wing of the Library the artist was invited to create an artist’s book for a project to commemorate both the 1967 national referendum, which determined that Aborigines would be counted in the census, and the centenary of women’s suffrage in Queensland. Watson’s work was a preponderance of aboriginal blood 2005. The artist subsequently found her Aboriginal grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s government files in the Queensland State Archives, which led her to make an illustrated book, under the act 2007: a series of works using print techniques and drawing based on personal family photographs and photocopied pages of letters and official documents found in the archives.
Watson’s great grandmother’s ‘exemption card’ is depicted in the work. These cards were official government papers that Aboriginal people were required to carry to prove they had the signed permission of the Protector of the Aborigines to be in a public place: boarding a train, walking to
the shop, being off the government reserves. The papers could be asked for at any time by the police. Aboriginal people called these hated papers ‘dog tags’, as they felt they were being treated like animals in their own country. In official records Aboriginal people were frequently categorised as ‘full blood’, ‘half-caste, ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’. In the Archive Watson found letters written by her grandmother to the government seeking permission to marry her grandfather who was white, with documents relating to the application for exemption of her grandmother from ‘under the Act’.
The artist remembers her mother speaking of her grandmother’s stories of ancestral country around Riversleigh Station in north-east Queensland, as well as darker stories of the threats Aboriginal people lived with under the Act, including the fear of being sent to an island. Her grandmother used to say that she ‘didn’t know which island it was, but I was always told I’d be sent there’. In the Archives Judy Watson found a reference to her grandmother’s aunt who had been sent to Palm Island and of another family member who was threatened with this punishment.
In much of Watson’s art the techniques of drawing and printmaking both inform and are a foundation for realising paintings on canvas. In speaking about the painting process she speaks about being influenced in her work by the pooling of water, and this relates to how she prepares the surface of the canvas. Water plays a vital part in the print workshop, especially with lithography, where the pushing and pooling of liquid inks on the surface of the stone makes the image.
The artist describes the body of work shown in her exhibition a complicated fall (2007) as a lament for Palm Island. The title, a complicated fall, refers to the state Director of Public Prosecution’s description of the cause of death of Mulrundji Doomadgee while in police custody on Palm Island. The exhibition consisted of a series of paintings on unstretched canvas, employing the artist’s signature powdered pigment washes pushed into the surface, with some areas washed back and graphic elements overlaid. One painting is rendered in deep red ochre hues. The outline of a male torso in classical pose is visible; a shell form can be seen as a body organ, maybe a heart, and ribs or throwing sticks appear to float away at the bottom of the frame.
… a bailer shell is also a cultural vessel. It was used as a container to bail water out of canoes to stop them from sinking, and as a receptacle for red ochre used in healing, and for painting up and ceremony.
 The Queensland Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act came into force in 1897 and controlled the fate of Indigenous people in Australia for much of the twentieth century; it was the model for other states. It severely restricted their movements and the basic civil rights.
 Judy Watson, interview by Avril Quaill, 5 April 2006.