The extraordinary oeuvre of the late Sally Gabori (c.1924–2015) is a rare portal into Australia’s pre-colonial history. An important repository of tribal lore, Gabori’s canvases sing songs about ancestral knowledge, traditions and landscapes before White settlement.
Sally Gabori was born around 1924 on Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a small island of the Kaiadilt people. Her tribal name, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, means ‘dolphin born at Mirdidingki’. Gabori lived her first twenty-three years according to an unbroken ancestral culture, uninfluenced by the encroachment of Europeans. Yet in 1948, following severe drought and a tidal wave that struck Bentinck Island, the Kaiadilt people were moved to the Presbyterian Mission on nearby Mornington Island. Here Gabori bore eleven children, raising them along with several others of her husband’s children to other wives, as is Kaiadilt tradition. Although she spent most of her life away from her country, Gabori maintained Kaiadilt culture, singing its songs with family and community, fishing and gathering bush foods. She remained on Mornington Island until the 1980s, when some of the Kaiadilt people began to return to their ancestral country after the Land Rights movement saw small outstations erected on Bentinck.
Gabori didn’t hold a paintbrush until she was in her eighties. She was first introduced to painting materials in 2005 while at the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre. Her immediate love of paint and raw talent triggered an outpouring of artistic expression as Gabori instinctively engaged with a full spectrum of colour to visualise the glories of her country. Mixing wet paints on canvas to create tonal shifts and gestural brushstrokes, she evoked geological and ecological flux on Bentinck. Bold, hard-edged forms and sharp colour contrasts describe enduring natural structures such as ancient rock-walled fish traps, or the cliffs meeting the ocean.
Gabori’s unique aesthetic vision captured the imagination of the art world. Brisbane art dealer Simon Turner, of Woolloongabba Art Gallery, was the first to recognise her talent and show her work commercially, followed by Beverly Knight of Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, leading to a string of exhibitions and awards.
In Issue 10 of Artist Profile, 2010, Owen Craven wrote about Gabori’s extraordinary fluency with paint, commenting, ‘what is remarkable is the maturity of her fascination with colour, expressing herself through what would be viewed in Western Art terms as abstraction. On close inspection, one appreciates the intimacy with which the works are produced. The works identify the woman behind their making—who she is and from where she comes.’
Gabori spoke little English, only her native tongue the Kayardild language, and never learnt how to read and write. Instead she communicated the ancestry and geography of her people across an exceptional output of over two thousand paintings. One of the last surviving keepers of Kaiadilt language, traditions, stories and culture, Gabori represented a living connection to pre-colonial indigeneity. Today just a handful of Kaiadilt people still speak their traditional language. Gabori’s paintings harness the colours and textures of Kaiadilt country and the vibrancy of her memories. They represent a culture of seeing, providing insight into the unique ways the Kaiadilt see their world.
This valency of ‘seeing’ forms the thematic kernel of the exhibition ‘Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori: Kaiadilt Eyes – The Art of Seeing’ at Alcaston Gallery, which features recently released paintings from the Estate of Sally Gabori. Among the works exhibited is Dibirdibi Country, 2010, a masterpiece measuring 456 x 196 cm that adds further dimension to the artist’s mastery of form and colour. The exhibition reminds us that the heart of art is seeing; something Gabori had mastered across a lifetime.
Shortly after Gabori’s passing in February 2015, the executor and beneficiaries of her estate (her children) appointed an agent to manage the remainder of the estate paintings and apply the funds from future artwork sales and royalties to a Foundation in the artist’s honour. Funds have been set aside for a monument marking Gabori’s grave on Mornington Island, which will incorporate images of her artwork and her totem, the dolphin. This is scheduled for later in 2018, upholding local tradition whereby a period must pass between a person’s passing and the unveiling of their headstone. In addition to gifting fourteen works to Queensland Art Gallery, Gabori’s family has invested future income to support the education of all lineal descendants of the artist, while income from art sales is used by her children to support themselves and their relatives.
Ultimately, the paintings poured forth by this remarkable nonagenarian in her last decade embody Gabori’s enduring wish, Ngada marraaju kilwanmaruthu ngijinju dulku – ‘I want to show you all my country.’