skeletons – an exhibition by Judy Watson

In 2022, Queensland State Archives (QSA) worked with Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Amanda Hayman (Wakka Wakka/Kalkadoon), curator at Blaklash on the skeletons exhibition.

While engaging with this content you will hear or see violent or racist content. Some content contains terms and attitudes reflective of the period in which the event occurred and may be considered inappropriate today.

This exhibition opens the closet doors to Australia’s skeletons.

It’s your invitation to step across the threshold to an alternative national narrative. Discover the buried evidence within the state’s archive that brings to light undisclosed happenings and validates the mistruth of terra nullius, subsequent colonial conflicts and the continuation of Aboriginal resistance.

Download the skeletons booklet to find out more about the artworks and Judy Watson.

QSA has the largest collection of documentary heritage about Queensland and is custodian to over 3.5 million records dating back to the early Moreton Bay penal settlement of 1823. Within the shelves, cabinets, boxes and drawers of the archives, there are records that illuminate the brutal attitudes and undertakings of white people towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the past 200 years.

There are accounts of governmental prejudice, social inequality and extremely callous acts involving shootings, poisonings and massacres, including a series of violent conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which are known today as the frontier wars. Find out more about the Queensland frontier wars on the QSA website.

shadow bone (2022) by Judy Watson

Primarily, skeletons refers to the physical remains of people and is symbolic of the black lives lost at the hands of the colony in both historical and contemporary contexts. It also draws on the figurative expression ‘skeletons in the closet’ to talk about these shameful historical secrets.

Silenced whispers echo trauma of generations past.
A denied history is folded neatly and filed away.
For hundreds of years, the truth lays dormant,
with skeletons and secrets awaiting the light of day

Judy Watson

Judy Watson is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists and her practice is informed by her cultural identity with both lived and inherited experiences as a Waanyi woman from north-west Queensland. Waanyi people are known as ‘running water people’. She sees the world through a cultural and feminine lens, drawing inspiration from her matrilineal family. Notably, in the late 19th century, her great-great grandmother survived a massacre in the Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) area by weighting herself down underwater and breathing through straw-like reeds. Understandably, there is a deep affinity in both Judy and her work towards water and Country.

As an artist, Judy is provocative yet poetic. Her work is an aesthetically beautiful layering of concepts with impressions of memory and Country. With subtle abstraction her art lures audiences, lowers defences and triggers curiosity. The artworks wash over you; there are waves of symbology, narratives and materiality that ebb and flow into her works. They float between international, national, local and personal histories. This collection of work explores Queensland stories, from the frontier wars to ongoing racism and violence.

With two hands raised to the sky, slight movements let in beams of light, the negative space creating a spectral figure.

shadow bone (2022) was commissioned by QSA. In this video the light depicts truth, and the gesture of covering the face could be to shield oneself from horror and dismay. It can also represent the ‘blocking out’ or denial of a true history. In the distinctive style of Judy Watson, multiple layers of video drift, emerge and submerge across the screen.

There are familiar insertions of pre-existing artworks by Judy as well as some pencil drawings by a young Aboriginal man from Queensland, known only as Oscar. Oscar’s sketchbook is a part of the National Museum’s collection and has 40 pages of pictorial depictions of cross-cultural contact involving Aboriginal people in the 1880s.

Other layers reveal hand-written and typed letters from the archives and X-ray images of skulls. Close-ups of the jaw speak to the modern method of identifying deceased people through their dental records. These X-ray images, reduced down to black and white and to the bare bones, skeletons represent existence.

Finally, the glimmering light bounces off the skin of the water; the body of Country outshining and overshadowing the other layers, where viewers are left with the shadow of original hands until it fades to black.

skeletons is a truth-telling exercise to
promote understanding, education and healing.

About Queensland State Archives

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