Judy Watson is a prolific and acclaimed Brisbane-based artist, who belongs to the Waanyi people of northwestern Queensland. Her work has often reflected on the histories of Aboriginal people that lie submerged in the landscape. Watson made found 10 inches under in response to viewing an Aboriginal shield at UQ Anthropology Museum.1 The shield was uncovered during the construction of the small metropolitan airport at Archerfield, close to Acacia Ridge, the area in which the artist lived as a child. In this work, Watson references Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (Kath Walker) poem Acacia Ridge:
White men, turn quickly the earth of Acacia Ridge,
Hide the evidence lying there
Of the black race evicted
As of old their fathers were.2
Found in shallow soil, ‘ten inches’ below the surface, the origin of how the shield came to be in this location remains unclear. Watson made a drawing of the shield and replicated its dynamic mark-making in her painting, but commented that she had not seen this style of intricate line carving on Aboriginal objects made in the Brisbane area; rather, she had seen similar examples from southeast Australia.3 UQ Anthropology Museum records note that the zigzag patterns on the hardwood shield recall the design of Aboriginal ‘Wunda’ shields from Western Australia. Wunda shields are described as parrying shields that are used in battle, but this one is more like a dancing or ceremonial shield, both in its design and light construction.4
The painted image of the shield is enclosed in the outline of a plane, referencing the airport where it was found. White circular points scattered across the painting could be runway landing lights or map reference points. The land now occupied by Archerfield Airport was purchased in 1855 by Thomas Grenier, and was believed to be the best grazing land in the district. It was utilised for farming until purchased by the Brisbane City Council in 1929 to establish the airport. During the 1930s, after services were moved from Eagle Farm, it became the main airport for Brisbane. It remains unknown whether the shield pre-dates European settlement, belongs to the traditional owners of the area or was brought from elsewhere. The UQ Anthropology Museum acquired the shield in 1960.
The existence of the shield is evidence of the layers of histories, literally, underfoot. By incorporating this object into her painting, Watson connects her story to the stories of other Aboriginal people’s experiences, both told and untold.
Adapted from text by Kath Kerswell, Senior Registrar.
1. The title is drawn from the sketchy details Watson recorded from the object’s label.
2. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) ‘Acacia Ridge’ in The Dawn is at Hand, http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo/acacia-ridge-0719015.
3. Judy Watson in conversation with the author, 12 June, 2012.
4. Noted on object label, UQ Anthropology Museum.