Judy Watson Has A Yarn On Her Art And History


Two of Australia’s leading and celebrated artists, Judy Watson and Helen Johnson, explore complex and varied perspectives on colonisation, the colonial legacy and the role of women along with motherhood and family.

Judy, a Waanyi woman, and Helen, a second-generation immigrant of Anglo descent, have each developed ambitious new bodies of work that speak from the artists’ individual and ancestral experiences of living in Australia.

While disparate histories and subject positions are brought into proximity with the red thread of history, loose ends, the exhibition also celebrates the artists’ shared love of materiality and motherhood.

Working primarily with painting and printmaking, Watson and Johnson engage with the cultural and political significance of image and mark-making, addressing the relationships between layering and memory, body and material in their separate practices. Individually and in conversation, their works draw on colonial archives, reclaiming experiences and perspectives specific to womanhood.

Recognising the ongoing nature and legacies of colonialism, both artists acknowledge the importance of making change. For Watson and Johnson, the hope is that this collaboration starts conversations, prompting people to encounter subjects from different perspectives.

‘There are parallels in the way that Helen and I look at history and try to deal with it as artists, and to bring it into our current perspectives as women and mothers, living in Australia with the burden of what happened on this continent in terms of colonisation. It’s a historicising of fact and research, but there’s a tender stamp of femininity too, which is very powerful. Subtle, but powerful,’ said Watson.

‘Judy and I have such different subject positions, but with the commonality of womanhood. I was thinking about the work that can be done from these perspectives and what happens when they meet. I feel like colonial Australia and contemporary Australia are one and the same thing—this is part of the continuity that runs through this exhibition and is alluded to in the title: “the red thread of history”,’ said Johnson.

Originally commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia for the Know My Name program, and as part of the Balnaves Contemporary Series, at MUMA this exhibition is brought together with new and existing works by each artist that explore the significance of family and motherhood, the importance of matrilineal lineage, and the tensions between individualism and connectedness.

Curated by Hannah Mathews, Senior Curator, MUMA, with Jaklyn Babington, formerly Senior Curator, Contemporary Art; Tina Baum, Gulumirrgin (Larrakia)/Wardaman/Karajarri peoples, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art; and Elspeth Pitt, Senior Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia.

At MUMA, Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends is accompanied by Judy Watson’s recent publication skullduggery (2020) and a new artist’s book by Helen Johnson made with MUMA and Negative Press.

Judy Watson is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne, and published by grahame galleries + editions, Brisbane. Helen Johnson is represented by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne; Pilar Corrias, London; and Château Shatto, Los Angeles.