The treasure of ephemera: One artist’s story


As ‘mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri: Judy Watson’ opens at the Queensland Art Gallery, the QAGOMA Research Library unpacks the Judy Watson Artist File. Here, we explore some of the treasures of this artist’s ephemeral journey so far, from an invitation to the artist’s earliest solo exhibition — ‘bath icons’ (1986) (illustrated), held at Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education’s Switchback Gallery in Churchill, Victoria — to a hand-printed exhibition poster from ‘a sacred place for these bones’ (1989), held at the Central Theatres Gallery, Griffith University, Brisbane, the Artist file covers Watson’s journey so far.

Judy Watson / ‘bath icons’ 1986 / Solo exhibition invitation / Advanced Education’s Switchback Gallery, Churchill, Victoria / © Judy Watson
Judy Watson / ‘a sacred place for these bones’ 1989 / Hand-printed exhibition poster / Central Theatres Gallery, Griffith University, Brisbane / © Judy Watson

A treasure trove of ephemera, the Research Library’s Artist Files collect exhibition invitations and flyers, posters, newspaper and magazine clippings, exhibition reviews, press releases, illustrations and photographs, artists’ statements, smaller catalogues and other curiosities. Often designed as discardable marketing collateral, together these items can provide context for an artist’s story — the how, when, what, where and why — and sometimes even solve mysteries. When researching less well-known, emerging, regional or local artists, this ephemera may be the only available information left behind to piece together an artist’s story.

In the case of prolific Queensland Waanyi artist Judy Watson, the depth of our Artist File allows us to dig deep into the story of Watson’s career to date, from her earliest solo exhibitions in the 1980s and her inclusion in ‘The First Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT1) at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1993, her 1995 Moet & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship win, her co-exhibition with Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Yvonne Koolmatrie at the XLVII Venice Biennale in 1997 — all the way through to printouts of electronic-born digital content of the 2000s and, from the present day, the Gallery’s media kit for this most current exhibition.

Judy Watson / ‘bloodline’ 1988 / Solo exhibition invitation / Aboriginal Artist Gallery, Sydney / © Judy Watson

For curators, artists and scholars, Artist Files like these are often integral to their research — whether to tell the story of an artist’s life, document their exhibition history or provide provenance for artworks. With more and more of this ephemeral content now only published in digital format, the question of how to conserve and safeguard born-digital material continues to be a challenge for archivists and librarians alike. Thankfully, provisions in The Copyright Act 1968 allow the Research Library team to make preservation copies of this born-digital material — content deemed to be of public benefit — to be printed and filed.

Here at the QAGOMA Research Library, we invite Queensland artists to actively contribute to their own Artist File by sending us archive copies of their ephemeral material for future generations of researchers to discover. We especially encourage submissions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, women artists, and trans or non-binary artists.

Our archive would not be what it is today without our tireless team of Library Volunteers, who have spent thousands of hours — over many years — helping us organise, label and sort our Artist Files.

The QAGOMA Research Library is located on Level 3 of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and is open to the public from Tuesday to Friday, 10.00am to 5.00pm, with access to special collection material available by  appointment. Explore the library catalogue online anytime. For more information or to discuss contributing to your own Artist File contact us at or call +61 (07) 3842 9557.

Cath Charlton is Librarian (Collections), QAGOMA

Judy Watson / reeds and net 2020 / Limited edition print 24/60 / © Judy Watson

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

mudunama kundana wandaraba jarribirri: Judy Watson / Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Gallery (G3), G4 & Watermall, Queensland Art Gallery / 23 March – 11 August 2024