Image 02. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Walunja, 2014.
Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson
The unstoppable octogenarian
Image 01. Photo copyright Ken McGregor.
It’s the beginning of May and an ideal time to visit Central Australia. As I step off the aeroplane and onto the runway, the dry air fills my lungs. After completing all the required paperwork, I load my bags into the rented four-wheel drive and proceed towards the majestic MacDonnell Ranges. I stop to take photos of the splendid ghost gums that line the road towards Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to the town of Alice Springs. When I arrive at Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson’s house, I’m greeted by the squeals and laughter of several children. They have been waiting for my arrival. As I pull into the driveway they scatter and run through a side gate that has been left open for me and it closes and locks behind them.
‘Nyuntu Palya Mr Watson?’ I say as I kneel down on the paint-splattered carpet covering the large converted garage, which has become his new studio. There’s a single bed in the corner, a washbasin on one wall, a large heater and air conditioner in the ceiling. This is also where family member Jorna Newberry, paints her own work while Watson’s long time carer Fabian Conti carefully mixes all the paints in small plastic containers and places them near the canvas on a long narrow table. Watson uses special imported acrylic paint and adds a touch of gloss medium to some of the colours. Every painting he completes is documented with many working photographs and when finished is accompanied with a certificate of authenticity from Chris Simon at Yanda Art.
Watson sits cross-legged on a half-finished painting laid out on the floor. The unstoppable octogenarian speaks very little English but smiles, extends his firm hand and continues to dot the canvas. I watch the master colourist work for another hour. He completes a section of canvas almost as big as himself; he looks up occasionally, grinds his teeth and says something in a language I don’t understand. I smile knowing he is happy for me to sit, watch and discreetly take photographs. Several years ago he would not have been so kind; he is a shy and wary man and has every reason to be. Early last year he lost quite a few paintings as well as his home; it has taken many visits over the years for me to be awarded his trust.
Image 03. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Pirurpa Kalarintja, 2014.
Image 04. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Ngayuku Ngura, 2014.
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“I paint because I have to, I paint to help family.” Last year because of previous bad management, Watson and his family were evicted from the house they thought they owned and had lived in for many years; sadly the title deeds were not in the family’s name. Watson said at the time he had painted all his stories, but was well aware the only way to purchase another house was to keep painting. Encouraged by his family, he accepted his fate and has actively taken his work a step further by painting larger versions of older paintings. “I am old one now and can’t walk too far, but I don’t want to be lost in old fella home, I want to stay with family.”
One only has to think of Edvard Munch who over a 17-year period created four versions of his most famous work The Scream, or Vincent van Gogh’s seven Sunflower paintings with their different coloured backgrounds. These precedents have helped canonise these iconic works and help them become synonymous with the artists. The art world is nevertheless fortunate and collectors have greatly benefited from Watson’s exceptional work in this late creative period. Painting bigger works is now possible because he has a much larger studio to work in.
Watson was born about 75 kilometres west of the small community of Irrunytju also known as Wingellina. Throughout his youth, Watson and his family fulfilled their role as custodians of the Pitjantjatjara nation. While growing up Watson learned to understand the significance of social organisation and learned the law from his elders. As an older man, Watson has only now passed the ordeals of initiation, shown wisdom and maturity and proven himself as great hunter and leader. He has also fulfilled his role as a living archive of the knowledge of his country while travelling across the Pitjantjatjara lands to fulfil his role as an elder.
Australian Indigenous society is incredibly complex, successfully devised to suit both environment and context. Intimacy with their surroundings, knowledge of their lands and an incorruptible social structure have helped the society survive for thousands of years in harsh environments. While Australian Indigenous peoples traditionally do not have written language, every person is acutely aware of the role they play in their community. Their stories are imbued with the extensive knowledge of the Dreamings passed down from one generation to the next; their song lines acting as musical maps that tell the truth of the landscape.
Watson started painting in 2001 and was one of the founding artists of the Irrunytju Art Centre. The narratives found within his paintings are irrelevant and Watson does not divulge the meanings of his paintings (although he does title each work and talk briefly about some stories). He developed his signature style very early in his career, Watson reveals that “I wanted to be different to other artists, I saw all the early Papunya artists long time ago and thought I could be different”. He doesn’t use a thin meat skewer to apply his paint like many Indigenous artists; he cuts an old paintbrush in half and then sands the end flat. His style is loose, and relaxed, he covers the canvas with multi coloured large uneven dots and will occasionally work over an existing colour to create an almost sculptural, three-dimensional effect.
Watson has a natural gift of uncompromising creativity, instinctively knowing exactly where each colour combination is going to be placed. The ensuing patterns are beautifully balanced, full of intensity, saturation and texture, and he demonstrates a tremendous sensitivity for composition with most works conveying a strong sense of movement. In all of Watson’s works there is a finely balanced tension between order and chaos, with darker moodier backgrounds carrying a suggestion of infinite space.
“Watson is a master of invention. Each painting tells a specific story, but the most impressive feature is his use of colour. Like Matisse, Watson knows that one may have warm and cool shades of red, warm and cool shades of blue. But he knows this instinctively, without any formal training. What he knows cannot be verbalised, and cannot be taught, yet no one could see these paintings and not be convinced of its profundity,” says John McDonald, an art critic for the Australian-based Sydney Morning Herald. Ralph Hobbs of Art Equity exclaims, “Watson is our greatest living indigenous artist”.
His work is widely recognised nationally and internationally, and he has exhibited in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Western Australian Art Gallery, Perth; South Australian Art Gallery, Adelaide; Bond University and many notable private collections. In 2005, Watson was one of eight Australian Indigenous artists who were commissioned to produce artwork for the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France. Australia’s contribution was particularly unique, with the architect Jean Nouvel requesting that the art works be integrated into the fabric of the building, embedded in its walls, ceilings and glass frontages. Watson’s own painting Wipu Rockhole (2006) was enlarged and reproduced on stainless steel tiles to adorn the museum’s ceiling.
As I take more photos, Watson intuitively continues to dip his stick into the various plastic pots of colours laid out in front of him and gently taps the canvas. The vibrant dots of magenta light, blood red lake, burgundy, cadmium orange and quinacridone purple start to dominate the canvas and symbolically represent the dreamtime journeys of his ancient ancestors, and the significant episodes in the history of his life.
I ask Watson more questions about his life and his culture and what has influenced and affected his paintings. “I paint my grandfather’s country and my grandmother’s country. That’s what I paint. When I was young, they would take me around that country, that’s why we all look after country and go out whenever we can. See if the rock holes are good and the grass is not too tall” he recalls.
Traditional western notions of time are depicted with a linear, definite beginning, with a progression of constructs such as hours, minutes, months and years. In other words, a yesterday, a now and a tomorrow. In reality, however, this concept of time is nothing but a western theory, a measure in which events can be categorised and given some order and meaning. Watson obviously does not subscribe to these concepts noting that the oral history of Indigenous culture is ever present and interconnected, “the Dreamings is now, the Dreaming is not a metaphor it exists,” he adds.
“It’s all my country. Walu is a rock hole, Untju Akata is my mother’s country and Pukara is a place.” His paintings are rich in knowledge of the topographical landforms of his country and the Tjukurrpa law that underpins his knowledge. He very briefly talks about the sacred Dreaming Stories that are important to him, like the Great Flood Dreaming about the melting ice that flooded the lands north of the Great Australian Bight. He goes on to tell the story of the Pangkalangku, tall man-eaters from the north-east and the conflicts between the Pitjantjatjara and the Yankunyatjarra.
Before I leave Watson’s studio he reflects on his recent artistic output, “soon there will be no more stories. No more painting.”
Image Credits: Image 01. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson. Photo copyright Ken McGregor. Image 02. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Walunja, 2014, Acrylic on Belgian linen, 152 x 244 cm. Image courtesy of Piermarq Gallery Sydney. Image 03. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Pirurpa Kalarintja, 2014, Acrylic on Belgian linen, 152 x 244 cm. Image courtesy of Piermarq Gallery Sydney. Image 04. Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Ngayuku Ngura, 2014, Acrylic on Belgian linen, 152 x 244 cm. Image courtesy of Piermarq gallery.
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