Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends 

AC 1283
AC 1283

10 September – 12 November 2022

Two of Australia’s leading and celebrated artists, Judy Watson and Helen Johnson, explore complex and varied perspectives on colonisation, the colonial legacy and the role of women along with motherhood and family.

Watson, a Waanyi woman, and Johnson, a second-generation immigrant of Anglo descent, have each developed ambitious new bodies of work that speak from the artists’ individual and ancestral experiences of living in Australia.

While disparate histories and subject positions are brought into proximity with the red thread of history, loose ends, the exhibition also celebrates the artists’ shared love of materiality and motherhood.

Working primarily with painting and printmaking, Watson and Johnson engage with the cultural and political significance of image and mark-making, addressing the relationships between layering and memory, body and material in their separate practices. Individually and in conversation, their works draw on colonial archives, reclaiming experiences and perspectives specific to womanhood.

Recognising the ongoing nature and legacies of colonialism, both artists acknowledge the importance of making change. For Watson and Johnson, the hope is that this collaboration starts conversations, prompting people to encounter subjects from different perspectives.

‘There are parallels in the way that Helen and I look at history and try to deal with it as artists, and to bring it into our current perspectives as women and mothers, living in Australia with the burden of what happened on this continent in terms of colonisation. It’s a historicising of fact and research, but there’s a tender stamp of femininity too, which is very powerful. Subtle, but powerful,’ said Watson.

‘Judy and I have such different subject positions, but with the commonality of womanhood. I was thinking about the work that can be done from these perspectives and what happens when they meet. I feel like colonial Australia and contemporary Australia are one and the same thing—this is part of the continuity that runs through this exhibition and is alluded to in the title: “the red thread of history”,’ said Johnson.

Originally commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia for the Know My Name program, and as part of the Balnaves Contemporary Series, at MUMA this exhibition is brought together with new and existing works by each artist that explore the significance of family and motherhood, the importance of matrilineal lineage, and the tensions between individualism and connectedness.

Curated by Hannah Mathews, Senior Curator, MUMA, with Jaklyn Babington, formerly Senior Curator, Contemporary Art; Tina Baum, Gulumirrgin (Larrakia)/Wardaman/Karajarri peoples, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art; and Elspeth Pitt, Senior Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia.

At MUMA, Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends is accompanied by Judy Watson’s recent publication skullduggery (2020) and a new artist’s book by Helen Johnson made with MUMA and Negative Press.

Judy Watson is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne, and published by grahame galleries + editions, Brisbane.

Helen Johnson is represented by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne; Pilar Corrias, London; and Château Shatto, Los Angeles.

Both Judy Watson and Helen Johnson are available for interview.

Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends opens 10 September until 12 November 2022 at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Ground Floor, Building F, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield East. monash.edu/muma



Judy Watson

Judy Watson was born in Mundubbera, Queensland. Judy Watson’s Aboriginal matrilineal family is from Waanyi country in north-west Queensland. The artist’s process evolves by working from site and memory, revealing Indigenous histories and following lines of emotional and physical topography that centre on particular places and moments in time.

Spanning painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture and video, her practice often draws on archival documents and materials, such as maps, letters and police reports, to unveil institutionalised discrimination against Aboriginal people. Exhibiting extensively since the 1980s, Watson co-represented Australia at the 1997 Venice Biennale and won the Works on Paper Award at the 23rd National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award in 2006. She was also the recipient of the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2006 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award.

In 2011, Watson’s exhibition waterline was shown at the Embassy of Australia in Washington DC, and in 2012, she exhibited in the Biennale of Sydney. In 2018, the Art Gallery of New South Wales staged a major exhibition of her work titled the edge of memory. Watson has also received commissions for several public art projects across Australia, including fire and water at Reconciliation Place in Canberra in 2007, ngarunga nangama: calm water dream at 200 George St in Sydney in 2016, and in the same year, tow row for the Gallery of Modern Art’s 10th Anniversary in Brisbane. A significant solo exhibition of her work was held at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Vic., in 2020.

Her work is also included in several significant Australian and international collections, including all of Australia’s state institutions, the National Gallery of Australia, the Tokyo National University of Technology, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the British Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia/TATE. Watson is an Adjunct Professor at Griffith University. In 2018, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Art History by the University of Queensland.

Helen Johnson

Helen Johnson’s practice is concerned with how painting can be used as a means of addressing and reflecting on aspects of cultural identity in an open—as opposed to declarative—way. Though grounded in figuration, Johnson’s approach to painting diverges in search of pluralism and openness, where the privilege of the subject is challenged. For Johnson, painting is a space where seemingly incontestable things are constantly being reconsidered and put into new relations with other things, where slippage is always present.

Select solo exhibitions: Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends, Balnaves Commission exhibition with Judy Watson, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2022; Warm Ties, ICA, London; Chapter, Cardiff; and Artspace, Sydney, 2017–18; Ends, New Museum, New York, 2017; Barron Field, Glasgow International, 2016; Cafe Fatigue, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne 2015; The body is through, Laurel Gitlen, New York, 2015; Slow Learners, Château Shatto, Los Angeles, 2015; Ex-execs, Minerva, Sydney, 2014; Time Flies, Sutton Projects, Melbourne, 2014; Problem History, MADA Gallery, Melbourne, 2014.

Select group exhibitions: Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020; Painting. More Painting, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2016; TarraWarra Biennial: Endless Circulation, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Vic., 2016; I wish I never kissed that frog, Jeanine Hofland, Amsterdam, 2015; Relational Changes, Christine König Galerie, Vienna, 2015; In my absence, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris, 2015; June: A Painting Show, Sadie Coles, London, 2015; Care, Interstate, New York, 2015; Air to Surface: Parker Ito and Helen Johnson, Prism, Los Angeles, 2013.

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