Standing in the centre of Judy Watson’s large fabric paintings feels as meditative as the standing stones they depict. Crowded around Ikon Gallery’s walls, the natural rocks blend into swirling canvases in spectral blues and browns, mimicking the powerful sense of serenity often found in these mysterious prehistoric outcrops of stones. In my momentary daze, I almost miss the violence – the images of pins, spines, hooks, and the dashes of red that go up with a yelp like a bee sting on a sunny day. This is Watson’s secret weapon; she seduces us with mesmeric forms and then hits us with the heavy stuff.
The heavy stuff in this instance is the historic oppression of the Indigenous Australian people from whom Watson descends on her mother’s side. With ancestors from Waanyi country in north-west Queensland, Watson has spent much of her career researching the lives of her family, digging up their stories and preserving their culture. Her findings aren’t pretty. Rosie, Watson’s great great grandmother, narrowly escaped a massacre by hiding underwater and breathing through reeds. Her great grandmother had to run away from the police in order to avoid the removal of her children and when her grandmother was finally captured she was forced to work from the age of five.
It is from these shards of a disrupted and burdensome history that Watson has produced an entirely new body of work including painting, sculpture, video and text. The exhibition begins in the foyer with a canoe entering the stunning landscape of Lawn Hill Gorge, a spotless vista of glittering water, lush foliage and rough red rock where Watson’s family originally hails from. As we enter this vivid scene, we join the Australian artist on a journey to a place that is at once past and present as we remember her predecessors that also used to paddle through this waterway.
Into the gallery space and we are greeted by the aforementioned canvases. Uniting Watson’s Indigenous heritage with her English, Scottish and Irish ancestry, the paintings each feature a standing stone from British sites of prehistorical significance, such as Stonehenge, Avebury, the Hebrides and Orkney. The rock formations fade into a scene of natural materials and layers of mottled paint mixed with water.
In an opening canvas, the ghostly stone is just evident beneath a thick braid of bush string and kangaroo grass. Bush string was made by Indigenous Australians by rolling fibres up and down the leg to bind the twine, picking up tiny hairs in the process. Watson’s placement of it over the standing stone monument infuses the string with status as it is memorialised alongside the European culture that has historically attempted to silence indigenous people.
There’s lots of layering in this exhibition – Watson draws on her dual heritage while depicting the inevitable devastation when one culture asserts itself over another. Standing stones are paired with gumbi gumbi leaves – a medicinal plant used for multiple millennia that a non-indigenous business recently tried (and failed) to trademark. Another stone is flanked by two long spines that refer back to Watson’s great grandmother on the run, feeding her children by ripping the fish straight off the bones of the animal.
In the single channel video Invasion, footage of standing stone sites in Britain is overlaid with natural Australian landscape and the hairstring skirts of Indigenous people now held in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. “I wonder how they got them,” muses Watson quietly as we watch the video. “Did they ask the women and the young girls to suddenly drop them and take them? Were they collected after a massacre?”
Conflict is understandably never too far from Watson’s mind and it bubbles over to harrowing effect here. Above a vitrine of sharp “resistance pins” used by women for survival and activism, 40 pairs of beeswax ears are nailed to the wall to recreate the actions of a wealthy, educated man who proudly showcased the ears of Indigenous people on his home in Lawn Hill. The drooping flesh appears in all sorts of shapes and sizes like the individuals they were torn from. In the gallery they listen for the remorse of the oppressors, asking us to account for their treatment.
The challenge of “why?” looms large in this exhibition, because as Watson’s delicate canvases and multi-layered video demonstrates, two cultures can exist quite beautifully alongside one another if we value them equally. Watson does not hide from the violence and ongoing injustices that have afflicted Aboriginals ever since Europeans set foot on their land – the text Skullduggery details that even after indigenous people died or were killed, the British were stealing their bones to erect in museums. But her art offers a more hopeful route forwards, just as pigment and water dance together in the construction of her paintings and images of nature lie with tokens of human civilisation, so we can learn to co-exist with each other and the planet.
• At Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until 31 May.
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