Sally Gabori began her relatively short but spectacular art career in 2005. She had never held a paintbrush or learnt anything of contemporary art when she was given art materials at the age of 81 at her aged care home on Mornington Island. By the time of her death in 2015, she had developed her own painterly language that had taken the Aiustralian art world by storm.
Gabori grew up living a traditional lifestyle on the low-lying Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Due to environmental threats (such as drought and flooding) Presbyterian missionaries evacuated the population in 1948, somewhat pleased for an excuse to convert the local people to Christianity. Cultural practices (including polygamy) were outlawed and the Kaiadilt language fell into disuse. For years the birthrate fell as the island people mourned their loss, while the remained somewhat removed from the Lardil people of Mornington Island. Sally was one of the last remaining speakers of her Kaiadilt language and as such, a custodian of their traditional culture, its stories and ceremony. As she got older, she felt a great need and desire to share her memories and experiences.
Throughout her life, Sally maintained her traditional crafts of weaving mats and bags from grass or hand rolled hibiscus bark. The Kaiadilt culture had no pictorial tradition and when it came to painting, it was the smearing and daubing of ceremonial body painting that seemed to be the primary influence. Her strong and energetic brushstrokes imparted a sensual quality as she recreated the beloved landscape of her early island life, feeling her way across the canvas with the sensitivity that only intimate familiarity with the natural environment bestows. Large areas of colour were painted over and into each other while still wet, mixing vibrant yellows, blues and reds, or in her more brooding works, blacks and misty greys. Her loaded brush attested to the outpouring of emotion and ideas as place and memory were woven into uninhibited fields of colour and shape.
Seven months after beginning to paint, Sally was attending her own sell out show at a Brisbane gallery. This star-like prominence continued unabated throughout the remainder of her life. Her work was soon appearing in major exhibitions and she was chosen to represent Australia’s visual culture at the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art during the G20 world leaders summit in 2014. Kaiadilt culture had emerged from seclusion, its stories and country entering the mainstream. While theorists of abstraction tend to talk of emotional expression, Gabori was always picturing stories. Her enthusiasm to sing and relate her heritage gave an integrity to her work. The responce was rapturous. Audiences could feel the sun, sea and mists converging alongside island flora and fauna. The extensive stonewalls that encircle the island; fish traps, built to provide a steady food source. Shellfish and crabs; gathered there and the incoming tides bring fish. Egg-laying turtles and dugongs leaving their tracks as they fed in the shallows on abundant sea grass. All have associated stories, both historical and legendary.
Enjoying the rewards of her success meant that Sally was able to start visiting Bentinck Island again, accompanied by her late husband and relatives. Small communities had been re-established there during the 1980s as part of the return to country movement. Her tribal name Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda indicates the part of the island where she was born (Mirdidingki, the southern side) and her totem, the dolphin (Juwarnda), refers to an event that occurred at the time of her birth. Her husband Pat Gabori was a warrior chief who won her in battle. She was one of four wives who mothered many children (11 of her own) and the support and sociability that this engendered continued up into her painting days. She soon inspired others to take up the brush, chattering and singing as they exchanged stories from the past. In her later works she used a thinner, milky solution, over-painting the brilliant colours beneath, as if the remembered landscape shimmered through a soft summer haze. Her amazing legacy throws stereotypical notions of contemporary Indigenous painting into question and infects the genre with exciting new perspectives in both theory and practice.
Author: Sophie Pierce
Edited by Adrian Newstead
Aboriginal Art Museum, The Netherlands.
Musee du Quai Branly, Paris
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
2014 - Sally Gabori, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne
2011 - Ngumuwa Kinyint - dark shapes, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.
2011 - Kalka dulk - bright country, Alcaston Gallery, at the Depot Gallery, Sydney.
2010 - Makarrki - My Big Brother, King Alfred's Country, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne; Mundamurra ngijinda dulk: My Island Home, The Gallery, Cork Street, Mayfair, London, UK.
2009 - Sally Gabori, Raft Artspace, Darwin, NT.
2008 - Sally Gabori - Dulka Warngiid, Land of All, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.
2007 - Sally Gabori Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda - Dibirdibi Country, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne
2005 - Woolloongabba Art Gallery, Qld.
2015 - Indigenous Art: Moving Backwards into the Future, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
2013 - My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.
2013 - Personal Structures, part of the Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Bembo, Rialto Bridge, Grand Canal, Venice, Italy.
2012 - Ngamathungarrba Marraanjuthu Dulku - Mother and daughters teach each other about country featuring Sally gabori, Amanda Gabori and Elsie Gabori, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.
2012 - Artist Profile at Depot Gallery, featuring the work of Emily Evans, Sally Gabori, Clinton Nain, Womikinimirri Puruntatameri, Cornelia Tipuamantumirri, at Alcaston Gallery, at the Depot Gallery, Sydney.
2012 - Artists from Bentinck and Mornington Island, featuring the work of Emily Evans, Sally Gabori, Amanda Gabori, Helena Gabori, Dolly Loogatha, Amy Loogatha, Paula Paul, Ethel Thomas, at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.
2012 - National Indigenous Art Triennial: unDisclosed, featuring the work of Vernon Ah Kee, Michael Cook, Julie Gough, Danie Mellor, Alick TipotiTony Albert, Nici Clumpston, Lindsay Harris, Naata Nungurray, Daniel Walbidi, Bob Burruwal, Fiona Foley, Jonathan Jones, Maria Orsto, Lena Yarinkura, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Gunybi Ganambarr, Sally Gabori, Christian Thompson, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.
2012 - All about art, featuring Sally Gabori, Linsday Harris, Garry Lee, and Gulumbu Yunupingu at The Depot Gallery, Alcaston Gallery, Sydney.
2012 - The Bright The Bold & The Beautiful Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, Sydney, featuring the work of Sally Gabori, Rosella Namok, Emily Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Eubena Nampitjin, Lorna Fencer Naparrula, Maggie Napangardi Watson, Christine Yukenbarri and Minnie Pwerle.
2011 - Artists from Mornington Island: recent works, featuring Verita Chong, Kelly Marie Chong, Sally Gabori, Amanda Gabori, Elsie Gabori, Netta Loogatha, Dolly Loogatha, Paula Paul, Ethel Thomas, Nancy Wilson at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.
2010 - Emerging Elders, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Ngamathungarrba bakiinda mirrayalath – Mother and daughters making things together, Alcaston Gallery, Danks Street, Sydney.
2009 - Bentinck Island Artists - New paintings and prints, featuring Kuruwarriyingathi Bijarrb Paula Paul, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Thunduyingathui Bangaa Dolly Loogatha and Birrmuyingathi Maali Netta Loogatha, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.
2009 - The Island Story - a moment in the sun, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne; Korean International Art Fair and the Art London 2009 art fairs.
2008 - Optimisim, Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery; Bandikawaanda makuwalada rarunginja thaand - Return of Kaiadilt Women, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne; Land, Sea and the Universe, Alcaston Gallery @ the 2008 Melbourne Art Fair, Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne; Paintings from remote communities: Indigenous Australian art from the Laverty collection, Newcastle Regional Gallery, Newcastle, NSW; Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards (2008), Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.
2007 - Bentinck Island Artists featuring Birrmuyingathi Maali Netta Loogatha, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne; Togart Contemporary Art Award, Parliament House, Darwin.
2006 - Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award Artists, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Sally Gabori and introducing The Bentinck Island Art Gang, GrantPirrie, Sydney.
2005 - Woolloongabba Art Gallery, Qld. Awards: 2012 - winner of the Gold Award, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Queensland.
2012 - winner of the Togart Art Prize, Parliament House Darwin, NT.
2012 - winner of the Gold Award, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Queensland.
The Bentinck Project, Woolloongabba Art Gallery, Qld, 2006.
Webb, Penny, Making art out of alife time's stories, The Age, Melbourne, p.27, 20/1/2007.
Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2006.
McLean, B., Contemporary Australia: Optimism, cat., Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2008.