A tragedy for the reputation of the community art centre movement has been revealed with the imprisonment of the former Mornington Island Arts co-ordinator, Brett Evans for selling 176 paintings – 169 by the late Sally Gabori – on his own account. According to the court in Mt Isa, he’d received $425,378.20 for the paintings; and as well as his four and half years sentence of imprisonment, Evans has been ordered to pay back $421,378.20 to the island’s Mirndiyan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation. He’d become chief executive of that organisation before moving to the FNQ’s Indigenous Art Centre Alliance in Cairns as its Development Officer.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori died in 2015, so, hopefully knew nothing of this deception – though the offences occurred between March 2011 and September 2014. Gabori had ceased painting in July 2013, aged approximately 89. She’d only discovered her art in 2005, encouraged by Evans – who had come to Mornington Island as a clerk in 1990 and became the art centre co-ordinator that year. Also involved in her breakthrough was Simon Turner from the Woolloongabba Gallery in Brisbane, where Gabori held her first shows.

In catalogues for those shows, Evans writes enthusiastically about the “old Kaidilt woman (who) took up painting, and, as the year progressed, so did Sally, from a shy old lady, ‘head down shaming’ into an artist confident in her ability and proud of her work. It has been a joy and privilege to work and laugh with Sally”.

Not only was Sally transformed, but the other old ladies who’d been uprooted from their remote Bentinck Island in the 1940s and brought to Mornington when drought lead to widespread starvation, were inspired by Gabori’s achievement to take up paint brushes for themselves and form the ‘Bentinck Island Art Gang’. With income from their art, they were able to return to Bentinck for the first time and establish an outstation. The 2015 book on Gabori’s art in the Pat Corrigan Collection also shows a substantial two-story house on Mornington built for Sally, her husband Pat, their five daughters and a son.

Brett Evans was married to another local artist, Emily Evans. He was involved in Sally’s promotion through a book by Susan McCullough in 2007 and the big solo show that the Queensland Art Gallery held in 2015, just after her death. QAGoMA named it for the identity Kaidilt people gave to their home when anthropologist Norman Tindale spent time there in 1960 – ‘Dulka Warngiid‘ – ‘Land of All’, or, possibly even, ‘The Whole World’.

What motivation Brett Evans had to steal this art he’d helped to bring into the world is unknown, for he pleaded guilty to all 35 charges in court. He’d been investigated by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations after directors of the Mirndiyan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation raised concerns. It’s the first time that ORIC has successfully prosecuted an individual for this type of offence.

An article in the Australian Financial Review suggests that the ownership of the paintings may now be in doubt. But Adam Knight, dealer and former President of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia tells me “The artworks are not stolen when funds have been fully paid in good faith. All works were purchased in good faith”. And hopefully the Gabori Estate will now be recompensed.

So many brilliant canvases emerged during Sally’s 8 years of loving work. For, as her Kaidilt language died out, those paintings were proof of her people’s culture. Many were given the title ‘Dibirdibi Country‘ – a logical challenge as didirbidi is the rock cod. How can a cod be country? Well, when you live on a barren little island and have established the most extensive system of rock-wall fish traps in all of Indigenous Australia, the sea is just as much Country as the land. Especially so if the Cod was also a mythic creature who’d sacrificed his liver to create a perpetual spring on the land.

Hopefully this understanding of traditional culture will come across in Paris later this year when Sally Gabori enjoys a solo show at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. This will follow the current Emily Kngwarreye show at Gagosian in Paris.