This artistic archaeologist has made a career out of it. Smartly urban and art school-trained, Watson, 46, has used her lineage to the Waanyi country of northwest Queensland as the wellspring for her art. Here, along the Lawn Hill Gorge, "greenie-blue" water bubbles up, cabbage palms sprout, and at water's edge Aboriginal middens of discarded mussel shells can be found. In northern communities such as these, the shells are also used to carry water and ocher, and to Watson's eye they are ripe with meaning. In 2002, inspired by her French dream and around the time of giving birth to her second child, she painted two halves with bailer shell, now in the National Gallery of Australia collection.
Not many artworks can be described as numinous, or deeply spiritual. But this 2m-high canvas, where the canoe-like halves float on a sea of Prussian and ultramarine blue is one of them. Next year, Watson's image will become even more incandescent, stretched along an 11-m-long glass ceiling at the new Musée du quai Branly in Paris. Set to open on the banks of the Seine in June, and combining the vast collections of the Musée de l'Homme and Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, architect Jean Nouvel's winning design specified Aboriginal art in the windows and walls of the museum, and Watson was one of eight artists selected by Australian curators Hetti Perkins and Brenda Croft.
"She has an unflagging interest and curiosity in pushing her work in new mediums," says Croft, the NGA's senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Along with the ceiling piece, Watson has designed a 40-m-long screen to be sandblasted into the ground floor window of what has been nicknamed the Australian Building. Together with the work of Lena Nyadbi, Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford, Gulumbu Yunupingu, John Mawurndjul, Tommy Watson, Ningura Napurrula and Michael Riley, the $1.2-million commission will showcase a living tradition barely contained by the museum's walls. "Even though indigenous artists draw on ancient traditions and heritage, they're very much a part of the contemporary world," says Croft, "and this shows how our art and culture is continually evolving as well."
Watson's work defies classification. Poetically considered and finely crafted (she trained as a printmaker), her work suggests many things. Is it contemporary or traditional? When asked to choose, Watson (whose father is of Scottish-English heritage) likes to give The Blues Brothers analogy about there being only two types of music: "My work is both Country and Western," she says. Watson's first canvases were like aerial maps forged by a bodily iconography. Through a shimmering field of dust, a heart or female form would pulse mysteriously. For the artist, the personal is political and always veiled in beauty.
For the 1997 Venice Biennale, Watson created majestic canvases of gold and ultramarine which the Italians naturally likened to Tintoretto. If truth be known, they were of the toxic blooms lapping the city's waterways. And walking through Watson's current show at the University Art Museum in Brisbane, one notices how she uses beauty to probe ugly truths. A delicate series of mushroom-shaped ink washes in fact document the bomb tests at Mururoa Atoll. Some of the most exquisite prints are reserved for reproductions of 1940s letters she found in the city library, in which correspondents are told they cannot vote because of "a preponderance of Aboriginal blood." In another series, Watson has etched Aboriginal objects she discovered in the British Museum, using the printing technique of chine collé to create a protective scrim across the top. These images will be sandblasted across the windows in Paris, where she hopes dust, rain and ice will coat them in a similar patina of propriety.
In a sense, all of Watson's work has circled her grandmother, Grace Isaacson, a Waanyi woman from Riversleigh Station. While the two always had contact (Watson was raised in a housing commission suburb in outer Brisbane; Isaacson later moved to Mount Isa), it wasn't until 1990 that they were able to visit Riversleigh together. Here she was shown how to grind spinifex resin, and was taken to a grotto knotted with fossils. But most of all she was told her grandmother's stories. "When she was five or six," recounts Watson, "her mother took her and some younger kids from her family across country, getting away from the Burketown police who used to take the lighter-colored children away. And they used to cross creeks, and she said her mother would catch fish, 'and she would give us the flesh off the backbone. She gave us the best of what she had.'"
The bones of that story can be found in the spiky symbol of spine and ribs, an etching in the current show. In essence, all of Watson's work is about things stripped bare by time. Most of all she likes her bones - collected from numerous field trips and artists' camps over the years - which are often arranged alongside her paintings and prints. It's as if to remind us that these, as much as skin, make us up. "It's not as though I go around thinking I'm an Aboriginal artist," she says. "I go to the shop, and I'm just a person going to the shop. It's when I see things like the documents in the archives, I suddenly feel it like a welt. That institutionalized racism influenced my family, and that's when I feel, Yes, I am an Aboriginal person."
As well as her bones, Watson is drawn to the things that nourish them. Since watching fellow artist Nalda Searles cook up gimlet leaves and puffball funguses at a Kalgoorlie campsite in 1994, Watson has been taken with the idea of mixing food colors into her pigments. Pig's blood, tree sap and the green cooking water from artichokes are just some of the ingredients that have ended up on canvas. Perhaps it's not that odd: Watson's work is about that which sustains identity, and the saying goes we are what we eat. Speaking of which, right now the artist has an appetite for something French. "We're going across to Paris," she says of the MQB project, "and we're going to be swallowing the building." π