Yannima Tommy Watson was born at Anamarapiti, circa 1935 approximately 40 kilometres west of the small community of Irrunytju (also known as Wingellina) Irrunytju is situated in Western Australia near the tri-state border of Western Australia, South Australia and the NorthernTerritory. Watson is a Pitjantjatjara man, and his skin group is Karimara. He spent his early childhood and teenage years living with his family, travelling from water hole to water hole, hunting and gathering and learning from his father the practical skills on how to survive on their lands in the arid regions of the Gibson Desert. While growing up he learned to understand the significance of social organization and the spiritual and tribal law teachings of his ancestors. Watson also inherited the knowledge on how to find water and food within their region. However, the fate of Watson and his family and many of the other western desert nomads was sealed with the introduction of assimilation policies. This combined with the severe drought throughout the 1950’s resulted in many of the Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra and Pintupi Aborigines moving from their home lands to the administrative centres in Warburton, Ernabella and Papunya. The unfamiliar world of the Government settlements was no place for these free nomadic people who were use to a life of unlimited travel, they became disoriented and more than half of the population of these new communities died. Most never adjusted and eventually in the 1970’s and early 1980’s returned to their traditional homelands.
In 2001 Watson was one of the founding artists of the Irrunytju art centre. His work is rich in the knowledge of the topographical and forms of his country and the Tjukurrpa law that underlies it. He paints the stories of his mothers and grandfather’s country recording the sacred dream time stories intuitively using large vibrant colourful dots of pinks, burgundy,orange and reds to symbolically represent the dreamtime journeys of the ancient spirits and the significant episodes in the history of his tribe.
“My grandfather’s country, grandmother’s country. When they were alive, they would take me around the country, when I was a kid. That’s why we look after country, go out whenever we can. See if the rock holes are good”
His most important dreamtime stories are the Great FloodDreaming, a story of the melting ice that flooded the lands north of the Great Australian Bight. Another story tells of the Pangkalangku, tall man eaters from the north east and his other stories tell of the tribal conflicts between the Pitjantjatjarra and the Yankunyatjarra.
As a young man Watson became a stockman at Mount Ebenezer,and then travelled to Yuendumu where he gained a reputation as an exceptional horseman. He is now a tribal elder and law man and frequently travels widely across the Pitjantjatjara lands to fulfil his traditional obligations. Today he divides his time between the remote community of Warakurna on the edge of the Great Victorian Desert and Alice Springs where he has a house and painting studio. He is widely recognised nationally and internationally and his work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Western Australian Art Gallery, Perth, South Australian Art Gallery, Adelaide and in many important private collections. He was commissioned in 2005 to produce artwork to be permanently installed in the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, France, which opened in 2006. The painting Wipu rock hole (2006) was enlarged and reproduced on stainless steel tiles which adorn a ceiling within the museum.
Words by Ken McGregor