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50 Treasures: burning ghosts by Judy Watson

Our thirteenth treasure is an early work by an artist who would go on to be at the forefront of Australian Indigenous art. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes 'burning ghosts' by Judy Watson. 

Marg Naylor answers the question "why is this significant?"

Judy Watson, burning ghosts 1979, etching, aquatint, collagraph and screenprint, 62 x 45 cm. 
James Cook University Art Collection. © Judy Watson/Copyright Agency, 2019. Photograph by Michael Marzik. 

The James Cook University Art Collection contains a number of significant artists who have made important contributions to Australian art. The young artist Judy Watson presented a print in the Townsville Pacific Festival in 1982 where it was successful in gaining the Martin Gallery Print Prize.

 Discussions between the then Curator of the Art Collection, Ron Kenny with the Director of the Martin Gallery, Ralph Martin, saw the work burning ghosts being donated to the University Art Collection in 1983. The work itself is a result of Judy Watson’s exposure to American literature, which she was studying as an elective for her Diploma of Creative Arts at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, Toowoomba (now University of Southern Queensland), in 1979.

Associate Professor Ron Kenny, viewing an exhibition held in the 1960s in the University College Pimlico Refectory. Photograph: James Cook University Records.

According to Watson, this ‘elective was what led me into looking at my own cultural history and want to make work about my Aboriginality and my identity as a woman. It was a huge influence on my work and on my life’.

The work itself is a repertoire piece combining etching, aquatint, collagraph and screen printing, demonstrating fluency across a range of techniques in a highly accomplished composition. Beneath the vibrant red colour and the orange brushstroke effects there are three major images embedded within the picture plane. The first is a small photographic etching of a group of figures with fracture lines created from the five segments of plate used to complete the image. The darker image in the centre of the composition is a screen print of American settlers (1) , including the young girl, in covered wagons seeking out opportunities on the frontier. The large image at the base of the composition is a grainy negative of the 1974 photographic image by Leni Riefenstahl of Nubian people in Africa, drawing the viewer into a reflection of the plight of Indigenous people within a ‘settler paradigm’.

Judy Watson preparing a lithography stone for printing at Umbrella Studio, Townsville. (2014)
Courtesy of Umbrella Studio, photographed by Angela Little.

burning ghosts was exhibited at the time Watson was completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Tasmania and highlights the emergence of a stronger interest in dealing with cultural matters, particularly in mind of her north-western Queensland origins. The importance of the Townsville Pacific Festival is also acknowledged as the regional centre continued to host this major festival for over twenty years, where it promoted Townsville on the international stage and sought to gain greater understandings and friendship between Australia and the Pacific region.

Judy Watson's art ephemera from the Martin Gallery Archive, Library Archives Collection,
JCU Library Special Collections.

Watson’s later work explores her Aboriginal roots, in particular a sense of belonging to country by creating forms of map-like compositions acknowledging her great-grandmother’s country in north-west Queensland. Her work probes deeply into spiritual associations with land and often utilises the physicality of the earth, its contours, colours and textures. The works are rarely literal and generally prompt the audience to connect by invoking sensibilities that move beyond ownership of land into a symbiotic belonging to place through ancestry and spending time on country.
Judy Watson's entry in the monograph titled Australia, Familiar and Strange:  contemporary Australian Art held in the Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.
Judy Watson has continued to produce quality work throughout her career, representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997, along with fellow Indigenous artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Yvonne Koolmatrie. In 2005 she was also responsible for a major work at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, highlighting Australian Indigenous art on the world stage.

Her work sits at the forefront of Australian Indigenous art that relies on a sophisticated mixture of the historic and the poetic. While Watson’s output rarely openly confronts the audience, there is always a subtlety that creeps up on the viewer as they are seduced by the fluency of technique and the style of her work that in turn leads one into layers of understanding of historic events and past traditions. Judy Watson’s ability to take on large commissions and projects allows her work to have significant exposure across Australia and internationally, bringing greater potency to Aboriginal history and cultural significance.
Books about Judy Watson from our other collections.

Judy Watson also spent time in Townsville, teaching into TAFE’s Department of Art and Design during the 80’s and was a co-founding member of Umbrella Studio in 1986. She has maintained a connection with the Townsville arts community and recently contributed a work to the travelling exhibition Legacy: Reflections on Mabo.

(1) The term ‘Settler’ is contested by First Nation and Indigenous groups, as settlement implies peaceful land acquisition.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Marg Naylor [Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts); Graduate Diploma of Education; Diploma of Business (Administration)] is currently the James Cook University Art Collection Project Officer and has a wealth of experience in the arts and education sector. Marg has worked at two major regional galleries in the areas of public programs, marketing and collection management and has been a Lecturer, Tutor and Teacher of Visual Arts and Crafts in the TAFE and Higher Education Sector.

Marg has governance experience having worked on numerous boards over a 40-year period, organised major events and fundraisers and is currently a Board Director of Dancenorth and Committee member of the Barrier Reef Orchestra in Townsville.


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