Tommy Watson

Tommy Watson

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DOB: c. 1935 - 2017
Born: Anamarapiti, WA
LANGUAGE GROUP: Pitjantjatjara
COMMUNITY: Irrunytju, WA

Yannima Tommy Watson was a senior APY Lands painter who was born around 1935 at Anamarapiti, about 40kms from Irrunytju Community (Wingellina) in Western Australia. Watson was a Pitjantjatjara man, his skin group was Karimara.

Tommy spent his early childhood and teenage 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. Watson lost his mother early and lost his father at the age of 7 when travelling from one waterhole to the other, so he was adopted by Nicodemus Watson, his father's first cousin. 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.

"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"

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 used to a life of unlimited travel. They became disoriented, most never adjusting. Tragically, more than half of the population of these new communities died. Eventually in the late 1970's and early 1980's most returned to their traditional homelands.

In his adult years Watson held a series of jobs, including building wells and stock yards at stations, as well as helping put the steel posts on Uluru in the 1960s and 70s. Watson also travelled to other communities, including Hermannsburg where he witnessed Albert Namatjira - the trailblazer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art - paint his famous watercolours. Watson also travelled to the community of Papunya when the pioneers of the western desert art movement first set down their powerful expressions of their Tjukurrpa (Dreaming). So, whilst Tommy Watson did not begin to paint until his 60s, he was well aware of the Aboriginal art movement.

In 2001, Tommy became one of the first indigenous men to begin painting at the Irrunytju art centre. His work, rich in the knowledge of the topographical landforms of his country and the Tjukurrpa law that underlies it, immediately captured attention. He painted the stories of his mother's and grandfather's country. From the start, he painted 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.

By 2002, Tommy had already been honoured with his selection as a finalist at the NATSIAA in Darwin, the peak Indigenous art industry award. This was his introduction to the wider art community. A month later, one of his works was included in the Irrunytju art centre's display at the 2002 annual Desert Mob show in Alice Springs. In a matter of about 12 months, Tommy had captured the attention of the art world and his star was on the rise. Demand for his artworks amongst collectors took off and competition amongst dealers also grew. With this came controversy that was never far away during Tommy's career.

Eventually Tommy entered into an exclusive representation agreement with Jon Ioannou of Agathon Gallery. This arrangement marked the start of a clear second phase of Tommy's career and saw the creation of a large body of outstanding artworks which were to further propel Tommy into the upper echelons of Australian indigenous artists.

In 2005, Tommy was commissioned, along with Ningura Napurrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson, John Mawurndjul, Paddy Bedford and Gulumbu Yunupingu, to produce an artwork to be permanently installed in the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, France. If Tommy needed it, this recognition served to further cement his reputation and his standing in the indigenous art community and with collectors.

Mary Knight in the book, Irruntju Arts described Tommy's style: he "uses layers of vibrant colours to symbolically represent the country of his parents and grandparents. Oranges, burgundy, reds, ivory and pinks are used to create sumptuous layers of coloured dots which ripple and surge across the canvas suggesting contours in the landscape, dry creek beds, plains of spinifex and tali (sand dunes)" (2006, p.72).

After suffering from ill health for some time, in 2013, Tommy had left Agathon Gallery and returned with his family to Alice Springs where he quickly struck up a relationship with Chris Simon of Yanda Art. This relationship heralded the start of the third and final phase of Tommy's painting career.

Regaining his health and clearly revelling being back in his beloved desert environment, Tommy embarked on an amazing productive burst. This step change was announced to the world by an article that appeared in The Australian newspaper in September 2013. And what an announcement it was: this diminutive man of such tribal importance was photographed in the Todd River bed in Alice Springs next to one of the great masterpieces of Aboriginal art, a painting measuring 244cm x 488cm.

Tommy Watson was most definitely back and his co-operation with Yanda Art resulted in artworks that redefined his career and drove Tommy's standing and collectability into the stratosphere. Exhibitions in Australia and internationally followed as did a second book, this one authored by Ken McGregor and Dr Marie Geissler, about Tommy's life and his art. Tommy's art is also featured in his own art hotel in Adelaide, named The Watson.

After suffering from gradually declining health, Tommy passed away in late 2017.

Thanks to Ken McGregor for his contribution.


  • Musee du Quai Branly, Paris
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
  • Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
  • Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
  • Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
  • Elizabeth and Colin Laverty Collection, Sydney
  • Patrick Corrigan Collection, Sydney
  • Auscorp, Sydney
  • Harold Mitchell Collection, Sydney
  • Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth
  • Richard Branson Collection
  • Luciano Benetton Collection, Italy
  • Adam Knight Collection, Melbourne
  • Aranda Art Collection, Melbourne
  • Australian National University, Canberra
  • Jacquie McPhee Collection
  • Luciano Benetton Collection, Venice

Awards and Recognition

2014 The Watson, Art Hotel, Adelaide - hotel themed on Tommy Watson art
2014 The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), Maastricht, The Netherlands (one of the world's most prestigious art fairs): a major work (160 x 485cm) by Tommy Watson was exhibited.
2008 25th NATSIAA, Darwin - Finalist
2006 Installation, Musee du Quai Branly, Paris
2005 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
2003 Kate Challis RAKA Award: Places that name us, The Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne - Finalist
2003 20th NATSIAA, Darwin - Finalist and Highly Commended
2002 19th NATSIAA, Darwin - Finalist


Selected Solo Exhibitions

2021 Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Brenda Colahan Fine Art, Sydney
2018 Desert Master, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2015 Tommy Watson Showcase, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2013 Going Back to Country, Metro 5 Gallery, Melbourne
2010 Tommy Watson, Metro 5 Gallery, Melbourne
2009 Kutu Wara | The Last One, Agathon Galleries, Sydney
2007 Tommy Watson, Agathon Galleries, Sydney
2006 Tommy Watson, Agathon Galleries, Melbourne
2005 Tommy Watson, Agathon Galleries, Sydney

Selected Group Exhibitions

2021 Across the Top 2021, Art Mob, Hobart
2021 Aboriginal Art Exhibition - From the Desert to the Sea, Gallery One, Southport, QLD
2021 Voyage across Aboriginal Australia | Founders' Favourites, Fondation Burkhardt-Felder Arts et Culture, La Grange, Motiers, Switzerland
2020 60 by 60 - Small Paintings, Japingka Gallery, Perth
2020 Pointillism Perfection, Art Mob, Hobart
2020 Director's Choice 2020, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2020 Top Ten - Our Most Popular Artists 2019, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2019 Defining Tradition | the colourists, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2019 Spring Collection: Exhibition to celebrate our beautiful Spring Collection, Brenda Colahan Fine Art, Sydney
2019 Large Showroom; Large Works, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2018 Beyond the Veil, Olsen Gruin, New York
2018 Masterpieces from the Western Desert, Nanda Hobbs, Sydney
2018 D'lan Davidson - New Works
2018 Into Abstraction: Exploring the Diversity of Abstraction and its Affiliations from the 1960's until the Present, Brenda Colahan Fine Art, Sydney
2018 Welcome to Thompson Street, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2017 Way out West, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2017 Sharing Country, Olsen Gruin Gallery, New York
2017 A SWEEP continues, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2017 Important Australian Indigenous Art , D'Lan Contemporary, Melbourne
2017 A SWEEP: Old & New Works, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2017 From the Vaults, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2016 From West of Here, Piermarq, Sydney
2016 Art Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Florida
2016 Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, Harvard Art Museums
2016 Selected Indigenous Paintings, Nanda Hobbs, Sydney
2015 Transcendence, Nanda Hobbs, Sydney
2015 Art from the APY Lands, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2014 From the Vaults, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2014 Winter Warmers, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2010 Christmas Show, Aranda Art, Melbourne
2010 Irrunytju Artists, Agathon Galleries, Sydney
2010 Desert Country, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
2010 Irrunytju Artists: Nganampa Nguru - Our Country, Linton and Kay Fine Art Gallery, Perth
2009 Emerging Elders - honouring senior Indigenous artists, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
2009 Nganampa Ngura - Our Land: Irrunytju Artists from the Western Desert, Linton and Kay Fine Art, Perth
2009 New Works, South Western Desert Art of Australia, Agathon Galleries, Sydney and Melbourne
2009 Nganampa Tjukurpa, South Western Desert Art of Australia, Agathon Galleries, Sydney,
2009 Agathon Galleries, Sydney and Melbourne
2008 Agathon Galleries, Sydney and Melbourne
2008 Lismore Gallery, Lismore
2007 Permanent Exhibition Musee du Quai Branly, Paris
2007 One Sun, One Moon, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
2007 Senior Irrunytju Artists, Agathon Galleries, Melbourne
2007 Irrunytju Fundraiser Exhibition, Agathon Galleries, Sydney
2006 Landmarks, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
2006 Musee du Quai Branly, Paris
2005 Cairns Regional Art Gallery, Cairns
2005 Wollongong City Art Gallery, Wollongong
2005 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) Gallery, Melbourne
2005 Ngayuku Ngura (My Country), Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne
2005 Senior Irrunytju Men, Aboriginal and Pacific Gallery, Sydney
2005 Mixed Show, Aranda Art, Melbourne
2004 Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
2004 NATSIAA - Celebrating 20 Years, National Archives of Australia, Canberra
2004 Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide
2003 Desert Mob, Araluen Centre, Alice Springs
2002 Wati Tjilpiku Tjukurpa | Senior Men's Stories, Aboriginal and Pacific Gallery, Sydney
2002 Desert Mob, Araluen Centre, Alice Springs