Judy Watson by Louise Martin-Chew

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Sometimes, defining experiences emerge away from our own country. The bailer shell motif that appears in this painting came to Judy Watson when she was living in France in 1995. She dreamed she was standing on a beach when a huge waterspout rose from the sea and came toward her, cutting a deep channel in the sand, revealing two shells: a bailer and a conch.

two halves with bailer shell 2002 comprises two forms drawn over a canvas washed with ultramarine and Prussian blue pigments. These doubled forms appear as two halves of a seed pod, or a fruit, or two female bodies. The left half is open to the colour underneath and, on the right, parallel lines create a topography of sorts. The blue background is awash with memory, its carriage down the generations a crucial conduit for culture. As Watson explained:

There is a split of the female form, referring to my maternal side, which is Aboriginal. It refers to my grandmother and ancestors and to the culture that is embodied within … the blue is memory, dreams, water being a carrier … for culture.(1)

Watson is a Waanyi woman from north‑west Queensland; she is of the running water people. In her Country, subterranean water bubbles from the gorges where it has fed the land for generations. ‘The carrying of water, the bubbling of springs is almost like a cyclical metaphor within my work.’(2)

This canvas hangs on the wall unframed, where it moves with the air, evoking the fluidity of water, air and culture. Her use of the bailer shell (extensively traded, worn as an ornament or used for scooping water and carrying ochre for ceremony) is a reminder that culture is integral to place—yet portable. Watson has said that wherever she is, ‘I carry my Culture and my Country with me’.(3) Conceived in France, it’s fitting that two halves with bailer shell was adapted as a public artwork at Musée du quai Branly, Paris in 2006.

Watson is a leading Australian artist whose work over three decades includes paintings, drawings, prints, artist’s books and public artworks. Her seductive aesthetic ameliorates the potency of the grief that leaks from her imagery: ‘My work is often veiled with objects encoded and hidden, slowly coming to the surface.’(4) They probe Australia’s frontier wars and massacres, her family histories, environmental issues and the plight of marginalised people all over the world.

I am the vessel, walking around, with the water within me, and then there’s an osmosis within all of the other places that I go to. I always want to know what’s channelling through those places, lifting the cloak of history to reveal what’s beneath and reacting to the here and now.(5)

(1) Judy Watson, two halves with bailer shell, National Gallery of Australia, 2002, at youtube.com/watch?v=c74smDIiQr8, accessed 28 January 2020.

(2) As above.

(3) Yu Ye Wu, Q&A with Judy Watson, 29 March 2017, National Association for the Visual Arts, at visualarts.net.au/news-opinion/2017/q‑judywatson/, accessed 28 January 2020.

(4) Judy Watson, ‘Country and Western’, lecture delivered for the Jillian Bradshaw Memorial Lecture at Curtin University, Perth, 23 September 2003.

(5) Louise Martin-Chew, ‘Judy Watson: The magic of Stradbroke Island’, Art Guide, 22 March 2017, at artguide.com.au/judy-watson-the-magic-ofstradbroke-island, accessed 8 February 2020.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Martin-Chew, Louise. "Judy Watson" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 366–367.

LOUISE MARTIN-CHEW is is a freelance writer and researcher based in Brisbane.

Judy Watson appears in