Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson Indignenous Australian, c.1935-2017


Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson is a senior Pitjantjatara elder and Law man of Karima skin group. He was born around 1935 in Anumarapiti, 75 kilometers west of Irrunytju,  in Western Australia, near the border with the Northern Territory and South Australia.  His given names of Yannima and Pikarli relate to specific sites near Anumarapiti.

Tommy Watson is internationally recognised as one of the most significant Aboriginal artists of our time.  He passed away quietly surrounded by family, in November 2017.


Tommy ‘walked in’ from the desert in his teens; as a child he lived a traditional life in the Gibson Desert, where he gained an intimate understanding of the environment and his Tjukurrpa (ancestral stories).  Beginning painting in 2001, he was one of a handful who established the Irrunytju community art centre.  Soon after he gained prestige in the Aboriginal Art movement, and was described by one critic as "the greatest living painter of the Western Desert".




Watson's work has received critical acclaim, within Australia and internationally, with art critics drawing parallels between Watson and Western Abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.  John MacDonald wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that Watson "is a master of invention and arguably the outstanding painter of the Western Desert", going on to compare his use of colour to Henri Matisse.

In 2003 Watson was one of eight Indigenous artists, alongside Paddy Bedford, John Mawurndjul, Ningura Napurrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson and Gulumbu Yunupingu, who collaborated on a commission to provide works that decorate one of the Musée du quai Branly's (Paris) four buildings completed in 2006.

Considered a pioneer of contemporary indigenous abstraction, Tommy is known for his use of strong vibrant colours which symbolically represent the ancestral stories of his country.  His paintings refer to his country, Ngayuku Ngura (‘My Country’ in Pitjantjatjara), representing several sites of importance, such as Walu, Utjuri Pukara and Pikarli. 

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, has described Watson's colour as "incandescent".  His understanding of Australia's physical environment and its relationship with the ancestral stories have come to form the central element of his paintings. Watson himself has stated that his art is an exploration of traditional Aboriginal culture, in which the land and spirituality are intertwined and communicated through stories passed on from generation to generation.  He said, "I want to paint these stories so that others can learn and understand about our culture and country."

Tommy’s recent series of iconic works set record prices in Australia and internationally, exhibiting at exclusive art fairs including The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF)Maastricht, PAN Amsterdam and GAF Amsterdam, Art Miami, Art Silicon Valley (San Francisco), Art Southampton and the Armory Show in New York, USA; and leading commercial galleries in New York, London, Sydney and Melbourne.

Tommy Watson is represented in important Australian public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of NSW. Watson’s work is also in many important international collections including the prestigious Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France, who commissioned him to paint a ceiling on one of the building’s levels, in 2006.

Watson’s place is secured as one of the all-time greats of Aboriginal painting.  In 2014 the Art Series Hotel Group named Watson as the first Indigenous artist to feature in the collection, his namesake hotel The Watson located in Adelaide.



Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (France)
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Western Australian Art Gallery, Perth
South Australian Art Gallery, Adelaide
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin



Ken McGregor & Marie Geissler, Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, MacMillan Art Publishing (Melbourne), 2010