Tommy Watson

Tommy Watson is a senior Pitjantjatara elder and Law man of Karima (Karimara​) skin group. His given names of Yannima and Pikarli relate to specific sites near Anumarapiti.​ During his lifetime he was described by one critic as "the greatest living painter of the Western Desert"​.

DOB: c 1935 - 30 November 2017

Place of Birth: Anumarapiti, WA

Significant Country: Anumarapiti

Language: Pitjantjatjara

Early Years

Tommy Yannima Pikarli Watson (also known as Yannima Pikarli or Tommy Watson) was thought to be born in the early 1930’s in Anumarapiti, just west of a small community called Irrunytju (also known as Wingellina), on the WA side of the tri-state borders of Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia.

Tommy’s mother died during his infancy, followed by his father when he was about eight years old. He then went to live with his father’s brother, who was to die two years later. Tommy was then adopted by Nicodemus Watson, his father’s first cousin. Tommy then went to live at Ernabella Mission, where he took the surname Watson in addition to his Aboriginal birth name, thus becoming Tommy Yannima Pikarli Watson.

Nicodemus Watson became a strong father figure, and together he and Tommy travelled widely, living off the land around Ernabella, the Musgrave Ranges to the Petersham Ranges. From Nicodemus, Tommy learned the traditional skills needed to lead a nomadic existence in the desert, including the making tools and weapons from trees, how and what to hunt, and finding water. Under Nicodemus guidance, Tommy learned about nature and his people’s ancestral stories, collectively known to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as Tjukurrpa. These years lay the foundation of his knowledge of country in both the physical and spiritual meanings of the land. After his life living in the bush, Tommy then worked as a stockman and labourer on cattle stations. 

During his time working at Papunya Tommy also met the school teacher Geoffrey Bardon who was pivotal in supporting the developing Aboriginal Art movement.

In 2001, after the establishment of the community arts centre at Irrunytju by the senior women of the community, Tommy who was already in his early 70s began painting for the first time, with other senior Ngaatjatjarra and Pitjantjatjara men. At the 2002 Desert Mob show in Alice Springs, Tommy burst into prominence with a magnificent work called, ‘Walpa’. During his lifetime he was described by one critic as “the greatest living painter of the Western Desert”.1

Yannima Tommy Watson was quickly recognised for his powerful use of colour and the energy that his brush stroke evoked from his canvases. Exhibiting at Desert Mob in Alice Springs and at the Telstra NATSIAA Art Award in Darwin his reputation continued to strengthen with his work becoming highly collectable. In 2005-2006 with the assistance of the Harold Mitchell Foundation, Tommy was among eight Aboriginal artists whose work was incorporated into the architectural structure of the Musee du Quai Branly, in Paris. Tommy’s painting Wipu Rockhole will be on permanent display as a focal point of the Museum’s design, enlarged and reproduced on stainless steel tiles ad embedded in the ceiling of the museum.

Tommy’s artwork combines contemporary visual technique, media and appeal with the traditional visual language through which he sings about country, using layers of vibrant colours to symbolically represent the country of his parents and grandparents. This use of oranges, burgundy, reds, ivory, blue and pinks create a sumptuous, visual compositions, paints the stories of his mothers and grandfather’s country recording the sacred dreamtime stories and 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 application of dots surging across the canvass alluding to the ripples and contours of the landscape. According to Judith Ryan, senior curator of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Victoria, Watson produces work that is inward and liturgical which, in common with the early boards of the Pintupi men, exhibits ‘incandescence’.

Tommy’s most important dreamtime stories are the Great Flood Dreaming, 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, whilst other stories tell of the tribal conflicts between the Pitjantjatjarra and the Yankunyatjarra.

He is widely recognised nationally and internationally, with 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.

  1. John McDonald (2005-11-24). “The Australian Way - December - Art” (pdf). Qantas. Retrieved 2007-11-21. “BORN C1930-32. WARAKURNA, WA.
    Since 2002 Watson has emerged as arguably the outstanding painter of the Western Desert” page 56
    Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Marie Geissler, Ken McGregor, 2010 MacMillan


01 - 30 April 2018

Shining Forth - Colour Power

Welcome to our Shining Forth - Colour Power Exhibition. This exhibition….. Proudly presenting the following artists Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Geraldine Nowee, Judy Napangardi Watson, Pamela Napurrurla Walker and Linda Napurrurla Walker, Alma Nungarrayi Granites, Jorna Napurrurla Nelson,…

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