Judy Watson

“In making the work I make I am lifting up my ancestors and their stories and learning more from them every day”

Judy Watson is an Australian artist whose practice is based on her exploration of her matrilineal Waanyi Aboriginal heritage and the experiences of Aboriginal people since British colonisation. Exploring Waanyi culture through the lens of collective memory, she then incorporates these histories into her artworks, often drawing on archival research and documents.

Watson’s work a preponderance of aboriginal blood uses copies of documents from the Queensland State Archives which are then layered with ‘blood-like pools of red paint, symbolising the pain and deaths of Aboriginal people.’ The documents in question are evidence of the discrimination Aboriginal Australians faced, including voting rights.’Full blooded’ Aboriginal people were not allowed to vote but ‘half caste’ Aboriginal people were. The artwork highlights the awful treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Queensland as a reflection of the ongoing effects of British colonisation.

This artwork will be part of A Year in Art: Australia 1992, a free exhibition at Tate Modern. The exhibition brings together a selection of over 25 works, many on show for the first time in the UK. The exhibition explores how artists have acknowledged the continuing relationship Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have with their lands, as well as the ongoing impact of colonisation and the complexities of representation in Australian society today. The exhibition is available to view from June 8th 2021 until Spring 2022.

When it comes to ideas of social change you have described your work as subtlety discreet with a strong message that insinuates itself into the viewer’s consciousness, do you think that aesthetically pleasing and subtle artworks can be used as an effective form of activism?

Yes, I think the power of aesthetics and subtlety can embed themselves into people’s memory and slowly leak their contents into their consciousness before they can put up resistance. Sound and smell can be a strong activation as well.

Do you think this exhibition, and your artwork specifically, will make British people more aware of the issues of British colonialism and how that affected/affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders? 

Yes, if people look into the work, they will get a sense of the oppression of Aboriginal people under the ‘Act’.

You talk about collaborating with family members on your artworks. Did they have any specific input/influence on a preponderance of aboriginal blood, and if so in what way?

I spoke to my mother, Joyce Watson about this work. She is also trained in printmaking, in fact, I was one of her first art teachers at Art School in Townsville. After making this work I took Mum and Dad into the Queensland State Archives with me. I showed them the files held on my grandmother, Grace Isaacson (Camp) and her mother Mabel Daly, among other members of my matrilineal Aboriginal family. I made a second artist book: ‘under the act’ based on these files. My mother is very supportive of me using this material in order to show the public what it was like for our people to live their lives under this institutionalised brutality and bureaucracy. My grandmother, Grace Isaacson gave permission for us to access her files.

You speak about collective memories as an inspiration for your work, have you found that a lot of personal histories and information have been lost due to a fear of discrimination from British colonialism? And if so did you find that loss of personal histories frustrating when researching during your process?

Many people have helped me to uncover documents and history about my Aboriginal family. I did interviews with my grandmother Grace, my mother Joyce and other family members from Mt Isa over the years. I’ve also undertaken a lot of research as have others about these untold stories of colonisation in Australia. It was hard at first to find these stories but we achieved it with persistence and hard work. There is more to be unearthed in the future.

Can you tell me about your creative process for a preponderance of aboriginal blood? How did you come up with the idea and how did you go about the physical process of making the artwork? 

I went to a talk by Loris Williams (an Aboriginal archivist) and Margaret Reid at the University of Queensland about Indigenous people and the right to vote in Queensland. They showed amazing documents on their PowerPoint and this is where I first heard the terms: half-blood and a preponderance of Aboriginal blood. Immediately I knew that this is what I wanted to make work about. I had been asked to make an artist book for the commemoration of Queensland women and the right to vote. I knew I wanted to focus on Aboriginal women in particular. I asked permission to use the images from Loris Williams’s talk and it went from there.

I’ve discussed the making of the work in previous texts that you can access from the description in ‘a preponderance of aboriginal blood’.

In previous works you have united your Aboriginal heritage with your English, Scottish and Irish ancestry such as standing stone, kangaroo grass, red and yellow ochre, is this also the case with a preponderance of aboriginal blood? How else do you navigate the contrast of these ancestries within your work?

My work ‘burnt shield’ which is in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery could be the shape of a European family shield. It could also be the female shape of the pubic area, or the waterhole at Duwadari waterhole, Lawn Hill Gorge, Boodjamulla National Park in NW Queensland. Sometimes I have referenced my skin colour, derogatory names and imagery associated with flayed skins. These are earlier works, both in prints and works on canvas.

You stated that shared experiences are an important part of your work. How do you feel to be a part of this group exhibition and is there any other artists artwork that particularly resonates with or stands out to you?

There are many amazing artists whose works resonate with me.

Sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t but their work goes beyond the knowing.

You describe discovering how your Aboriginal ancestors were treated as a ‘heavy burden’, do you consider your artistic work/process as a way to work through, express and deal with that ancestral trauma?

In making the work I make I am lifting up my ancestors and their stories and learning more from them every day. I want to pass that knowledge onto my children and to others in the wider community.

What other media (i.e. books, films, documentaries)  would you personally recommend to people who are looking to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures and the effects of British colonialism? 

Tony Roberts ‘Frontier Justice’, Timothy Bottoms ‘Conspiracy of Silence’, Bruce Elder ‘Blood on the wattle’, Rachel Perkins ‘First Australians’. So many books, videos, resources…

What artworks are you currently working on and which topics do you plan on exploring in the future?

I am currently making two bodies of work for different projects and venues that I can’t reveal yet.

One project is looking at climate change. The other is looking at a big issue affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody. I am also working with more research around the Aboriginal women in my family, the stations they worked on, the maps of the country. Other imagery will appear as I go through the process of making the work.

My public artwork ‘bara’ will be installed soon at the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, looking down at the Opera House. It is a large work in marble that represents the bara / fish hooks made from shell. These were predominantly used by Aboriginal women in Warrane / Sydney when they were fishing in their Nawi / bark canoes in the waters around Sydney, catching fish for their families in Gadigal Country.


Paolo di Paolo

Milano. Fotografie 1956 – 1962

As I enter an entryway clothed in a mass of tendrils and leaves, a restaurant heralds the space with diners enclaved among the green shrubbery. I follow the walkway until I find myself at the footsteps of a staircase, leading towards the gallery. Fondazione Sozzani presents the exhibition Milano. Fotografie 1956 – 1962 of Paolo di Paolo, curated by Silvia di Paolo in collaboration with Bvlgari. The series of photographs displays di Paolo’s adoration and admiration to the city of Milan, which meant a sense of traveling to a foreign country for the photographer. The exhibit showcases di Paolo’s conception of Milan, an unprecedented and untouched look before globalization. Mist hovers, residents and pigeons flock the city center, and the romance of typography and companionship croons the metropolis: the photographs lull the visitors back into the ripening state of Milan.

Humid air permeates the quaint space of the exhibit, stirring up warmth against the twenty-five-degree weather outside. The sliding door remains opened, stuck in its machinery, but whirs whenever a guest walks into the area. As I make my way inside, the glint of the seventeen overhead warm lamps, dangling over the square-shaped metal railing, reflects on the glossy purple floor. It adds illumination into the space as if the two closed windows on the left side are not enough to spill the sunlight inside. Positioned in the middle, a DNA-shaped metal seat waits for three tired guests, but there are only two visitors at the time, myself included.

Strolling to the left side by the entrance, di Paolo’s reverence for Milan springs up. The photographer captures four open windows in an architecture for La natura resiste. From afar, a person holds onto the railing of a window as they dust off the beam they crouch on, but the attention suddenly diverts to the sawed trunk and branches attached to the remains of the tree with a rope. The classic human versus nature tale leaps off the frame, a lost narrative from the two images of Fiera di Milano that position beside it. In these two photographs, captured in 1962, a crowd inspects the thermal circuit breakers with its cresting gray thin wires inserted into an unwieldy-looking box where the name KLIXON remains embossed on the side. The business men’s observant and analytical gaze at the device outlasts their time so much that they have forgotten to notice the two nuns in their habit uniforms that observe with them, who are enthralled by how the device functions. As di Paolo walks further in the 1962 technology fair, he captures three men and a woman peeking through the viewfinders of the cameras nestled into the walls which promise 3D images during the decade.

The year 1960, two years before the fiera, means di Paolo goes to Bar Jamaica and weaves through the bustle of Milan’s folks, photographing their humane interaction by giving each imagery his definition of grandeur in the city life. An orator raises his hands as he looks at the ceiling, swooned by his own declarations and dismissing the puzzled looks of the man behind him. A man sits beside a woman and courts her, bending his head sideways to usher humor into his punchlines, while she directs her eyes far from his presence. A woman looks behind her to find a man in his pensive expression as he raises his small cup, snugged between his forefinger and thumb, just below his lips. On the other side of the room, a group of men gambles in a room clothed with bathroom tiles. Here, the primary subject wears an unperturbed expression while a lit cigarette snuggles between his teeth, oblivious to the curious onlooker behind him who stands too close to the player and desires to offer advice on which card to throw on the table.

Magnolia on the radar, the celestial flow of luxury in the 1960s: di Paolo walks into the Aretusa Night Club, his camera in tow. Inside, an overhead lamp casts shadows across the space, illuminating romance and haze to wrap with the nostalgia of the evening. A man hooks his arm around a woman’s hips and tugs her to his body. They sway to the soft hum of the music and pay no attention to the patrons that surround them as they gaze into each other’s eyes, falling and ruminating. Such a sight differs in Sala da ballo as patrons dance to the sound of the live band, a mix of piano and guitar tunes over the saxophone lullabies.

Di Paolo commands his camera to record the political discussion in Duomo, the heart of Milan, when the year pivots back to 1958. The frantic pigeons flap their wings aggressively as they flock the city center, masking over the photograph. As one sees beyond the birds, residents crowd beside the monument of Vittorio Emanuele II to participate in political exchanges in their heavy winter coats, handheld purses and attache cases, tipped hats, and cigarette stubs between the lips. In the background, the forgotten era of typography in a myriad of designs and styles pepper the antique and historic architecture of Milan, a slow ascent towards modernization and minimalism.

The photographer’s storytelling on Milan endures as he captures a lone man walking on the roof of the cathedral with his phone on his ear, his scrunched eyebrows signal distressed against the lush and resplendent of the church. In Sul tetto del Duomo, – on the roof of Duomo – di Paolo hovers his camera to carpet the shot with the cathedral’s poignance, a registered vaporous memory to last and test time. As di Paolo walks down the cathedral and into the streets of Milan, he bumps into a couple, innamorati a Milano, lazing in the angle of a street – the man in trench coat looks afar as contentment flashed across his face and lets the woman beside him rest her cheek and hands on his left shoulder. Milan serenades the couple in the shelter of its romantic arms, enshrining their affair with a state of zen and mirage for years to come.

Dusk turns into nighttime, and the city center glows with Christmas string lights and street lamps. Di Paolo shoots four photographs for le luci di Natale as the exhibit forwards in 1962 and demonstrates the solemn celebration far from the Western upbringing. A policeman wears his cap and stands alone in the corner of a street, watching the pedestrians cross as the rattle of the tram passes by. Cars honk as they jam the street and appear slower than the crowd who germinate the sidewalks on foot. A policeman – his back facing the lens – stands outside Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Duomo, watching the residents stoll around the space and away from the frenzy Milan encounters today. The last photograph, the one that sits on top of the three frames, shows street lamps decorated with sticks of light to emulate fireworks in a starless sky. Here, a sense of finale has dawned in defiance.

I step back from the four photographs of le luci di Natale and turn around to find myself alone in the room. The afternoon sun creeps into its peak, and the rays pass through the window panes and bounce on the floor, attempting to replicate the reminiscence of Milan between the 1950s and 1960s. The longer I remain in the four walls of Fondazione Sozzani in Via Corso Como, 10 with Milano. Fotografie 1956 – 1962 of Paolo di Paolo, the more I realize that the beauty, divinity, and fertility of the bygone years persist.


For more information visit
Fondazione Sozzani
Corso Como 10, 20154 Milano
tel. +39 02.653531

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