Here’s a look at Black Ground, 1989, by Judy Watson

In her paintings, we can be looking up or down. The land is a powerful image that surrounds and encompasses us, and not one in which we assume a privileged position.

As black as the ground, her canvasses appear to have been cut out of it. The canvasses are fragments of a land with complexity, texture, and resonance.

Watson discovered a way of manipulating materials from the country and relating to them through her own experience while working on early works like black ground. As she stated in an interview, it was just the inspiration she needed.

It’s a very forgiving fabric, you can wash it and do other things. So, in a sense, it was liberating to work on the canvasses.

She pours paint into the canvas, which pools and soaks in. Her ability to apply ochres and pigments and control the process while also taking advantage of the accidental puddling and drying creates a direct link to the country. Watson was trained as a printer, and her active engagement with the surface allowed her to work directly on a canvas laid out on the ground.

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Judy Watson, 1989, black ground, powder pigment and pastel on canvas. (c) Judy Watson/Licensed By VISCOPY Australia

The images she creates, whether they are the outline of a mound of termites, such as black ground, spiraling double crowns of her child’s hair, or a nucleotide test, are simultaneously immediately accessible and tantalizingly vague. The poetry of her work is a result of the way she creates the paintings. For example, black ground, for instance, is literally dragged up from the soil.

Her canvases are the canvas for her eloquent, poetic, and acerbic chronicle of the suffering and injustices of Aboriginal Australians. She also evokes the dignity and accomplishments of Aboriginal people. She is a contemporary Australian Artist who bridges the gap between cultures to create powerful images that promote reconciliation and understanding.

Judy Watson at the Royal Academy of Arts, 2013. AAP Image/Julian Drap

Watson began her career as a printer in search of an open, accessible, socially engaged, and practical practice. Her work is inherently politically charged; she has not been afraid to address questions about race and color in Australia.

The title of her latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in December, Who’s Afraid of Color? is a reference to this.

The rich, dark surface of the black earth is also the backdrop of our country’s history. It is the black ground on which all else is built. Watson said, “my ,grandmother’s syringe seeps into the soil,” and this autobiographical intimacy was an effective way to engage her audience.

Watson, a Waanyi from North West Queensland, is a Waanyi woman whose country is the land of her grandmother around Lawn Hill Gorge and Riversleigh Station. For Indigenous Australians, it is important to make connections with the country. It is the foundation of their identity and the basis for understanding others. Watson explained as follows:

When you walk into that country

The earth is a pulsating heart, heat, and blood

Hidden things

Like the bones of people who have gone before

You are walking in their footsteps

Her work is characterized by a sense of humility and her commitment to taking a stand on important issues. The titles of her paintings reflect these ideas, always in lowercase as if they were snippets of conversation, ideas in brackets, or possible futures.

Hannah Fink, by avoiding capitalization, suggests that Watson does not want to make a definitive claim. Her titles are “fragments or phrases heard from a larger narrative.” Each of these works has a role to play in the greater political landscape.

She uses these framing and constructive methods in a way that is both symbolic and concrete, as in the case of the gentle flow through Gough Whitlam’s hand and into the palm of Gurindji Vincent Lingiari. (Recorded by Mervyn bishop in the famous photo in 1975).

Her paintings are a record of the process of making them:

The pooling of pigments

The dripping of paint

The burning of the ground

The accumulation of borrowed and found images and forms

This process of engagement with land transforms the materials into a poetic of belonging and ownership.

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