Tommy Watson's emergence as an artist is almost without parallel within Australian indigenous art. With a professional career of no more than seven years and no formal training in painting except for that which he initially received at the Irrunytju Community Arts Centre, his work has captured the hearts and minds of collectors all around the world. As one of Australia's most distinguished Indigenous artists he has paintings in all major Australian institutional collections. He was one of eight Australian indigenous artists to be celebrated for their high achievement as artists when his work was selected for permanent exhibition at the prestigious Musee de Quai Branly in Paris in 2007. In Australia, the confirmation of his extraordinary talent was achieved when his Waltitjata set an all time record for the work of a living aboriginal artist when it was sold for $240,000 at Lawson~Menzies auction in 2007.
Tommy Watson was first taught to paint at Irrunytju Community Arts Centre and since then, like most of the highly successful indigenous artists, manages his own career, today working exclusively with Pitjantjatjara speaker and gallerist, John Ioannou of Agathon Galleries Sydney. John Ioannou not only promotes and manages Watson's career for him but assists in the day to day care and professional development of Watson's own community, the artists at Irrunytju in Western Australia.
John Ioannou: "The value of Tommy Watson's painting as investment lies in the fact that he has only ever produced 150 or so major works. Tommy regards these as (aboriginal) ‘painting his country'... ‘Beautiful country'... and symbolically passing on very important cultural knowledge to do with his culture and land." Ioannou continues: "Tommy is a perfectionist in regard to the approach he takes to the process of painting. Each work is very carefully done, each a unique story of some aspect of his life. However, being an artist is only one aspect of his life as he spends much of his time in his community and lands."
Tommy Watson is a senior Pitjantjatjara elder, (Karimara skin group), born around 1935 at Anamarapiti, a homeland 44 kilometres west of the present day community of Irrunytju in Western Australia. As a young man Watson lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle with his family, walking thousands of kilometres from waterhole to waterhole. During this time he absorbed vital information about where drinking water and various sources of nutrition could be found in one of the continent's most arid regions. He learned how to survive in the desert and absorbed the teachings about the relationship of country to men's Tjukurpa (Dreamings). From his father he learnt how to use the coals of the fire to make spears by straightening the thin branches of tacoma bushes, and to carve spear tips and shields from sections of mulga trees.
His acquisition of such traditional knowledge and practical skills equipped him to survive the desert and understand the importance of tribal teachings about relationship of country to men's Tjukurpa. Watson learnt where he could find pinangu, transient pools of surface water; tjintijira (claypans); warku (rainwater collected in rocky holes and crevices); and hidden soakages such as tjurnu (soakages in dry creek beds) and yenta (wells). From the women he learnt where to find kampurarpa (desert raisin), ili (figs), maku (wood grubs), minkulpa (native tobacco), tjala (honey ant), tinka (lizard), nginaka (goanna), wayanu (Quandongs) arnguli (plum) and grass seeds which are ground and made into seed cakes. From his father he learnt how to use the coals of the fire to make spears by straitening the thin branches of Tacoma bushes, from others to build wiltja (shade structures) and yuu (wind shelters), to carve spears, woomera and shields from sections of mulga trees and hunt malu (kangaroos), putj (feral cats), kalaya (emu) and kipara ( bush turkey). During the early settlement period, members of his Pitjatjantjara tribe travelled to the west to live in areas near Warburton, and to the east around Ernabella in South Australia. A turning point came in the 1970's with many returning to their traditional land around Irrunytju, situated ten kilometres from the tri-state borders of Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia.
Tommy Watson maintains strong links with his traditional lands and sacred sites painting stories from both his mother's country south west of Warakurna and grandfather's country. When he is in his lands he lapses into in form of private conversation with himself, using subtle hand or head gesture to acknowledging places of special importance as he travels through. Tommy's mother died when he was very young so he was taught her stories by her relatives. ‘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 mother's Dreamings, to which Tommy refers includes the Seven Sisters, Kungarangkulpa (Minyma Tjuta) Dreaming, a narrative that exists in many forms through Aboriginal Australia. The Seven Sisters story tells of a journey that begins in the deserts in Western Australia and extends through several different language areas to the South Australian Pitjantjatjara country.
Watson paints his country, which is an area of some 400 square kilometres and extends from Uluru south west to his birth place 75 kilometers from Irrunytju. Locations include Umutju, Uluru, Anumarapiti, Walpanja, Utjantja. Wipu is a rockhole, Iyarka names a lake, Walu a rock face, Kapi piti a soakage, Kulpitjara and Kulpi kulpi a whirlwind, Utjuri Pukara, a sandhill shrub with honey dew and Wankarmaralkji a cave. Reference to country around Irrunytju where he was born in 1935 include titles such as Waltitjata, Pikarli, Anumarapiti, Anumarapiti Ngayuku Ngura. His Dreamings associated with Uluru include the flooding of the big water hole or lake between Uluru and Mount Connor. The Great Flood Dreaming, is an epic which relates to the melting of ice in the region 10,000 years ago when the waters from the south rose and flooded the lands north of the Great Australian Bight in South Australia. Tommy Watson also paints about the Pangkalangku, the man eaters from the north east. These were tall people who practiced cannibalism. He also includes in his repertoire the various tribal battles between the Pitjantjatjarra and the Yankunyatjarra and Eagle Dreaming Watson paints stories from both his mother's and grandfather's country.