The fascinating career of the late Bentinck Island artist and senior Kaiadilt woman Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (c.1924“2015) is explored in a retrospective exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery from tomorrow.
There’s a catalogue with illuminating essays, but the best I can offer right now is the Obituary I wrote and published in the Fairfax press on 9th April last year:
Mirdidingkinggathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was thought by ethnologist Norman Tindale to have been 37 in 1960 when he wrote about her Kayardild-speaking tribe. That means she was 81 when she first put paint to canvas in 2005 at Mornington Island Arts in the Gulf of Carpentaria. And she was 90 when she died on 11th February.
But who would know when her birth on Bentink Island (which she called Dulkawalnge or ‘Land of all’) had been cut off from just about any association with other tribes “ black or white “ for eleven centuries when she was born? Flinders knew there were people there in 1802, but they were shy and hostile, relying on an encyclopedic knowledge of the places where every sort of fish, plant and water could be found on their barren island and in its surrounding seas to survive. And that island “ 16 kms by 18 at its widest “ climbs only to a 10 metre sandhill at its highest point. The Kaiadilt built only the most basic of rafts to go to sea, but they installed the largest number of rock-wall fish traps around their island in all of Aboriginal Australia.
Juwarnda was the black porpoise, Sally’s totem. Gabori was originally Kabaratjingathi, her husband Pat’s surname, though Sally was only one of four wives, and may have seen her first husband murdered during the 1940s when a combination of drought and a cyclone causing exceedingly high tides provoked feuding between the eight Dolnoro or family groups on the island. Missionaries seized on this as an excuse to deport the Kaiadilt to Mornington Island in 1948 and to impose Christian values on them. Pat lost two of his wives.
Such was the trauma of this forced shift that for several years no child was born and survived, rupturing forever the chain by which one sibling transmits language to the next. Dr Nicholas Evans has written about vanishing languages internationally, inspired by his Kayardild studies. But in human terms, it meant that Sally Gabori could never pass her tribal lore on to the many offspring of her own 11 children through song or conversation. Painting was the only way.
Earlier, Sally had maintained Kaiadilt craft traditions of making coolamons and weaving net bags. But with no visual art tradition, she happily went to workshops at MIArts in April 2005 and started to paint. The boldness of colour and design was unique in Aboriginal art, as poet Jill Gienzotis would later write: An assault of light/Clean on the tongue like water./Shape changing, shifting/Land, fish, bird, my sons, my sisters, animal, tree.
For like Pallas Athena on a distant Greek island, Sally had sprung from the cultural isolation of her own head fully-armed with a paint brush, a sense of how to employ colours that she’d never even experienced in her Bentink life, and a determination to paint until she dropped.
By December ’05, ‘Sally’s Story’ had opened at the Woolloongabba Gallery in Brisbane thanks to the enthusiasm of gallerist Simon Turner. And in 2006, she was seen in Hobart, Darwin, Sydney and Melbourne as well as starring in (but not winning) both the inaugural Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Artist Award at the Queensland Art Gallery and the annual Telstra Awards.
Many of her works have been called ‘Dibirdibi Country’ “ an apparent contradiction in terms as Dibirdibi is the Rock Cod. Clearly there was little difference between land and sea in sustaining Kaiadilt lives. But Sally was also portraying the legendary pelican-like sacrifice of the Cod, who allowed his liver to be cut into pieces and thrown on to the rocks at the foot of a cliff, creating a perpetual spring. Another popular title was ‘Thundi‘, after her father’s place of birth, Thunduyi in or around 1865.
By 2012, Gabori was established enough to be invited into the 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial in Canberra where curator Cara Pinchbeck noted that she’d eliminated surplus detail from her work while exploring the potential of her painting technique to dramatic effect. And at another Canberra survey in 2013, Drill Hall Gallery Director Terence Maloon commented: The American painter Barnett Newman once quipped: ˜Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue?’ “ Sally Gabori certainly is not. Her work has come to be associated with a joyous, extroverted timbre of sizzling scarlets, piercing yellows (and) opulent blues.
For Sally herself, the greatest boon from her painting was being able to return to Bentink Island and establish an out-station. Three other women of her generation took up painting with Sally, who ceased working herself in July 2013. But many another Gabori name still crops up on the MIArt website’s list of artists. Sally is survived by artist daughters Madge, Elsie, Amanda, Helena and Dorothy and her son Maxwell. Pat died in 2007.
(Courtesy Fairfax Syndication)
The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Victoria from 23 September 2016 until 31 January 2017.
In Brisbane tomorrow, as part of the opening weekend celebrations, a panel discussion lead by curator Bruce McLean and walking tour will consider the breadth of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori’s prolific practice, and give personal insight into the late artist’s life and work.
Artist: Sally Gabori, Netta Loogatha, Ethel Thomas, May Moodoonuthi, Paula Paul, Dawn Naranatjil, Amy Loogatha,