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Major exhibition for First Nations artist Judy Watson opens at Queensland Art Gallery

Phoebe Blogg -

'mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri: Judy Watson’, is a new exhibition of works by Brisbane-based Waanyi artist, Judy Watson, at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Inspired by a poem in Waanyi language by Watson’s son Otis Carmichael, the exhibition's title translates to "tomorrow the tree grows stronger".

Presented in Queensland Art Galleries (QAG’s) central exhibition spaces and Watermall, mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri’ will run until August 11, having opened on March 23.

Watson told National Indigenous Times that the exhibition "walks the participant through identity, history, politics, feminism, environmentalism and it recreates my journey as a young woman; Dealing with stereotypes of who it was to be a woman, who we are as Aboriginal people - if we do or do not look the part."

"It also covers the history of my matrilineal line in particular. My grandmother, great and great-great grandmother and how they were able to survive in this country," she said.

"My job as an artist is to uncover those histories, rattle the bones of the archive and lift those histories up to show the viewer."

QAGOMA director Chris Saines said the gallery is proud to be able to celebrate the Watson's storytelling.

"Since the early 1980s, Watson has drawn powerful stories and profound truths from the Country of her matrilineal family and fashioned them into fluid and ethereal works of art," he said. 

Watson’s history with QAGOMA initially began with her work being featured in the inaugural Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993. Her enormously scaled bronze net sculpture tow row at the entrance to Gallery of Modern Art was commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in 2016.

Judy Watson at Urban Art Projects, Brisbane 2023. (Image: C Baxter QAGOMA)

Today, Watson's mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri is a comprehensive survey of the renowned Queensland artist’s incisive meditations on colonial, social and ecological concerns. It is also her most extensive solo exhibition to date.

The exhibition includes 130 works, across painting, prints, sculpture, installation and video, from an artistic practice centred on truth-telling around the environment, historical government policy affecting Indigenous Australians, and institutions that collect First Nations cultural material and remains.

'Mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri: Judy Watson’ is accompanied by a major publication that includes contributions from exhibition curator Katina Davidson; stories transcribed from conversations with Watson's family members; a poetic response by Jazz Money; and an international perspective on Watson's work from Tarah Hogue, Curator, Indigenous Art, at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Canada.

This career-survey exhibition, curated by Katina Davidson, curator of Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA, highlights Watson's deeply considered practice and the subjects that have resonated in her work across four decades: research of cultural objects in collecting institutions, feminism, truth-telling, ensuring the presence of Indigenous Australian stories and culture, and a commitment to the environment and country.

The exhibition was several years in the making and is the most expansive survey of Watson’s career to date. The exhibition draws together works including significant paintings, sculptures and installations, the largest collection of Watson’s video works ever shown, and artist books and prints dating from the early 1980s through to the present," said Davidson.

“Central to the exhibition are more than 35 of Watson's large unstretched canvases, impressively and seductively charged with her signature treatment of pigment combined with pastel. These multi-layered unstretched canvases have been a mainstay of Watson's practice since the late 1980s. Pressed with intense fields of ochre, ultramarine and sanguine pigments, they speak of land and sea, and map memories and histories important to her identity as an Aboriginal woman."

Watson said: "I’ve been very privileged to work with Judy on conceptualising an exhibition for the last two years now and it’s really been able to let us work really closely going to her studio."

"One of my favourite parts of working with Judy on this exhibition wasn’t just about the artwork, but it was really discovering more about her family and being able to create this almost  love letter to her matriarchy and really honouring her family." 

Judy Watson, Waanyi people, Australia b.1959 moreton bay rivers, australian temperature chart, freshwater mussels, net, spectrogram (detail) 2022
Indigo dye, graphite, synthetic polymer paint, waxed linen thread and pastel on cotton. (Image: Supplied) 


Among the many highlights in the exhibition are moreton bay rivers, australian temperature chart, freshwater mussels, net, spectrogram 2022, a major new painting acquired by QAGOMA through the 2023 Foundation Appeal; walama 2000 an installation of bronze termite mound and inverted dillybag sculptures on the QAG Watermall that appear to drift over the water's surface; the floor-based installation salt in the wound 2008/09 that painfully evokes Watson's great-great-grandmother's escape from a massacre at Lawn Hill Station; and sacred ground beating heart 1989 a work from the QAGOMA Collection that references the springs, rivers and creeks in Waanyi Country and draws on the enduring spiritual and life forces of ancestors in whose footsteps the artist treads.

Arts Minister Leeanne Enoch said the Miles Government was a proud supporter of QAGOMA and uniquely Queensland stories.

"Inspiring exhibitions like this are important for elevating First Nations art, sharing Queensland stories and celebrating storytellers as key priorities of the Miles Government’s Creative Together 2020-2030 Strategy," Enoch said.

"As we prepare for a global audience in the lead up to the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, QAGOMA exhibitions help to strengthen Queensland’s reputation as a world-class cultural destination."

Judy Watson,Waanyi people Australia  memory bones 2007. The James C. Sourris AM Collection. Gift of James C. Sourris through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. (Image: N Harth, QAGOMA) 

Watson gave a gallery tour of 'mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri’ in conversation with exhibition curator Katina Davidson on the exhibition's opening day (23 March).

Watson’s cousin Mark Isaacson also appeared, presenting a live whip demonstration, in addition to First Nations poets Otis Carmichael, Jazz Money and Ellen van Neerven who presented a poetry tour within the heart of the exhibition, highlighting the power of language and culture.  

'Mudunama Kundana Wandaraba Jarribirri: Judy Watson is a free exhibition showing at the Queensland Art Gallery until the 11th of August 2024.

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