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Tommy Watson

DOB: c. 1935

BORN: Anamarapiti, Western Australia
LANGUAGE GROUP: Pitjantjatjara
COUNTRY: Irrunytju, Western Australia

Yannima Tommy Watson known as Tommy Watson (c.1935–2017) was an Indigenous Australian artist of the Pitjantjatjara people from Australia’s central western desert. He was described by one critic as “the greatest living painter of the Western Desert”. Tommy was a senior Pitjantjatara elder and law man of the Karima skin group. He was born around 1935 in Anumarapiti, 75 kilometres west of Irrunytju (Wingellina), in Western Australia, near the junction of its border with the Northern Territory and South Australia. His given names of Yannima and Pikarli relate to specific sites near Anumarapiti.


Tommy’s mother died during his infancy, and his father when he was about eight years old. He subsequently went to live with his father’s brother, who himself died two years later. Tommy was then adopted by Nicodemus Watson, his father’s first cousin. It was at this point that he went to live at the Ernabella Mission and adopted the surname Watson in addition to his Aboriginal birth name, thus becoming Tommy Yannima Pikarli Watson. Nicodemus became a strong father figure. Together they travelled widely, and Tommy learned the traditional skills required to lead a nomadic existence in the desert, including the fashioning of tools and weapons from trees using burning coals, how and what to hunt, and how and where to find water. Under Nicodemus’s guidance, Tommy learned about nature and his people’s ancestral stories, collectively known to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as Tjukurrpa.


Tommy’s first contact with white Australians was at the Ernabella Mission in South Australia, which opened in 1940. After a short time at Ernabella, he returned to his community to be initiated. Tommy’s upbringing is like that of many Indigenous people born around the same time, from that point forward living a traditional nomadic existence until his early teens and then working as a stockman and labourer. During his time working at Papunya, he met the schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon, who was pivotal in supporting the developing Aboriginal art movement at the Papunya Tula art centre.


Tommy began painting in 2001 and was one of a handful of painters establishing the Irrunytju community art centre in 2001. His work has received critical acclaim within Australia and internationally. John MacDonald wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that Watson “… is a master of invention and arguably the outstanding painter of the Western Desert", going on to compare his use of colour to Henri Matisse.


In 2003 Watson was one of eight Indigenous artists, alongside Paddy Bedford, John Mawurndjul, Ningura Napurrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson and Gulumbu Yunupingu, who collaborated on a commission to provide works that decorate one of Paris's Musée du quai Branly’s four buildings completed in 2006.


Tommy was known for his use of strong vibrant colours, that symbolised the ancestral stories of his country. Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, has described Tommy’s colour as “incandescent”. His understanding of Australia’s physical environment and its relationship with the ancestral stories came to form the central element of his paintings.


Tommy himself stated that his art is an exploration of traditional Aboriginal culture, in which the land and spirituality are intertwined and communicated through stories passed on from generation to generation. He said, “I want to paint these stories so that others can learn and understand about our culture and country.”

Tommy Watson TW0501.jpg

Title: Anamarapiti

Artist: Tommy Watson

Acrylic on linen

Painted: 2005

Size: 250cm x 183cm approximately

Catalogue number: TW0501

Price: POA

Provenance: Mason Aust Pty Ltd > Private Collection

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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