Judy Watson / Waanyi people / Australia b.1959 / burnt shield 2002 / Synthetic polymer paint, ash, charcoal on canvas / 190 x 118cm (unstretched) / Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Judy Watson/Licensed by Viscopy, 2013

Judy Watson
burnt shield 2002

On Display: GOMA, Gallery 3.5

For burnt shield 2002, Judy Watson primed the canvas before placing it onto the blackened earth — the canvas was then coloured by the soil it lay upon. As Watson explained:

. . . I coated the canvas in acrylic binding medium and placed it sticky side down onto the blackened ground. The landscape is different, the termite mounds, the grasses and bush is different. After a ‘burn-off’, everything green sprouts really quickly.1

Later in her studio, Watson added the white shield image, a dual reference to European and Indigenous heritages. The delicate white line work emulates the fine-line carving technique found on Aboriginal shields from the Central Desert and western Queensland. The shape of the shield is also reminiscent of the coat of arms of various European families encountered on the artist’s travels in Italy. Watson uses this image as an ironic signifier of her dual heritage. The triangular shield form also refers to the pubic area of the female body, signifying both female sexuality and the developing life of a child in the womb.


1. Judy Watson, telephone conversation with curator Avril Quaill, 20 February 2003.

Judy Watson was born in 1959 in Mundubbera, west of Maryborough, in south-east Queensland, and lives in Brisbane. The spirit and substance of her work can be found in the homeland of her grandmother and great-grandmother. A descendant of the Waanyi people of north-west Queensland, Watson completed a fine arts degree at the University of Tasmania in 1982.

While living in Sydney, Watson exhibited in the 1989 Artspace survey exhibition ‘A Koori Perspective’ and became associated with the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, which had been established to promote the work of urban Indigenous artists.

In 1995, she received the Moët & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship, and two years later was represented the country in the Australian Pavilion at the 47th Venice Biennale as part of ‘Fluent: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Judy Watson’. Watson’s work explores drawing, printmaking, painting and sculpture, all referencing an Indigenous connection to land and history.

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think the combination of the blackened earth and the shield symbol means?

2. Look closely at the work and try to identify the different media employed by the artist. How does the artist use composition, colour and shape to portray spirituality?

Classroom Activities

1. Using a variety of media, create an artwork on thick paper (like craft paper) that builds meaning by layering components, such as motifs or symbols, which hold particular significance for you. To create your composition, use a combination of wet and dry media — for example, paint washes with pencil, charcoal or pastel.

2. Create an artwork by applying colours taken directly from a place you love — use the dirt from a garden bed or the sap from a favourite tree; also consider incorporating leaves, twigs and flowers into your work.