A Journey to Sally Gabori’s Bentinck Island

 
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Maxwell and Brian Gabori and Tex Battle, near Sweers Island Resort / Photograph: Bruce McLean

Bruce McLean travelled north to Mornington Island to visit the family of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori in preparation for the major exhibition ‘Dulka Warngiid – Land of All’. As part of his trip, Bruce was taken to Bentinck Island, Sally Gabori’s country, to view the places that were so important to her.

Our trip to Bentinck was arranged by the Mornington Island Art Centre, and a large group of artists and family were looking forward to returning to Bentinck for a few nights’ camp. The community’s largest boat was singled out, but at the eleventh hour, a shortage of medication scuppered the trip. Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori’s family were particularly disappointed, but there was much to do on Mornington and there was hope that other opportunities would arise. In these communities, an open and optimistic outlook is a necessity.

The next morning the sky was moody. Strange bursts of wind and short outbreaks of showers greeted an early morning Nescafé. The culprit soon revealed itself as the Morning Glory — the giant roll cloud the gulf is famous for — which quickly swept over, leaving calm in its wake. My first stop was the community lawyer, who worked with the Gabori family to administer Sally Gabori’s estate and who also worked closely with the wider Kaiadilt community. On hearing that the planned trip to Bentinck was no longer proceeding, we jumped in a Land Cruiser and soon arrived at a well-kept house with a beautifully tended garden fringed with fruit trees, and importantly, a boat parked out front. The house belonged to one of Mrs Gabori’s grandchildren, and the largish ‘tinny’ was reportedly a gift after Gabori won the Rockhampton Art Gallery’s Gold Award in 2012. After a short negotiation, plans were made to travel to the island in the family tinny in two days’ time.

Late on the Thursday morning, we set off from Gununa. The tinny accommodated seven passengers fairly comfortably. Our guides for the day were Sally Gabori’s youngest son, Maxwell, her nephew Gerald Loogatha, and Maxwell’s young son, Brian. We set out from Mornington Island and the Wellesley Islands, through an hour of open sea, out of sight of any land, then through the outer Kaiadilt islands of the South Wellesleys — first Horseshoe and Allen to our south, Douglas, Percy and Dorothy (Dorati) to our north, then a large land mass came into view in the distance: Dulka Warngiid, the home island of the Kaiadilt people.

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Outstation at Minakuri, Bentinck Island / Photograph: Bruce McLean

We motored up beside another island, which was covered in mangrove and she-oak stands. The island, Dalwai (Albinia), was the birthplace of Sally Gabori’s mother. It heralds a long, shallow sand flat that stretches all the way to the main island, teeming with dugong and bonefish. We continued on to Minakuri, the westernmost part of Bentinck Island, where we are greeted by a basic camp — essentially an open pergola structure.

From Minakuri we headed south. As we travelled, we were pushed further south by rows of extraordinary rocky outcrops. We pass the Mackenzie River, the base of one of the few white men to settle on the island and who, like many European settlers, treated the local people harshly, culminating in the ‘Mackenzie Massacre’ of the Kaiadilt.

We soon passed Kombali, one of two large rivers that divides the island in two during the wet season and leaves a vast claypan through its centre in the dry season. The recession of the Kombali and Makarrki rivers gives rise to stark contrasts between the red clay, white salt, yellow, red and black rocks and ridges, and green mangrove stands, which have inspired many of Gabori’s paintings. Navigating the largest of the southern headlands, we entered a large bay, framed by Barthayi (Fowler Island) to the south. Extremely shallow, its sandy bottom is dotted with vibrant soft coral that we cruise just inches above. Dozens of turtles shoot away from the noise of the approaching boat. Ahead of us, at the mouth of a small creek, is Mirdidingki, the site of Sally Gabori’s birth. The place of her husband’s birth, Kabararrji (Kabaratji), is next to her country. Somewhat poetically, as with their birthplaces, the pair spent their lives by each other’s side.

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Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia 1924–2015 / Nyinyilki 2010 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Collection: Beverly and Anthony Knight, OAM / Photograph: Chris Groenhout / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, 2010. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2016

Further east, we set off toward ‘Main Base’, the largest of the Kaiadilt homelands established at Nyinyilki, near the very southeastern point of Bentinck. Halfway along the bay we spotted a series of long, narrow underwater discolorations — sandbanks stretching from the coast at Thubalkarruwu to Thuwalt on Barthayi. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit Nyinyilki, the place of the rectangular freshwater lagoon celebrated by Mrs Gabori in some of her greatest paintings. Although there is a moment of disappointment, this moment in the daily tidal cycle of the island provides a great insight into Gabori’s paintings: the massive sandbar that has blocked our path traces its way elegantly through the crystal-clear waters of the bay in a giant ‘W’. As the water forces its way over its peaks, it turns from baby blue to perfectly transparent to white. This transition of colour and form abounds in Sally Gabori’s paintings. Nyinyilki 2012 is particularly evocative of this phenomenon and place, with its bold central ‘W’ form.

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Canoe and sandbar at Milt, Sweers Island, looking toward Nyinyilki on Bentinck Island / Photograph: Bruce McLean

Retracing our steps out of the bay, we round Barthayi and Bardathurr, a large hill at the southern point of Sweers Island, comes into view. At its base is a freshwater spring, the resting place of the Rock Cod ancestor, Dibirdibi. Sally Gabori’s husband, Pat — whose totem was Dibirdibi — was the owner of this story and its storyplace, which were major themes in her work. To the south of Dibirdibi is a large exposed reef, Dingkari, which is the artist’s grandfather’s country and was also a key subject. The boat turned north into the channel between Bentinck and Sweers Islands, a pathway originally carved by Dibirdibi in the ancestral narrative. It was also in this area that Mathew Flinders anchored the Investigator for 15 days in 1802, and today it bears the name Investigator Road. We made a stop at the small fishing resort on Sweers Island, the place of a failed white settlement, Carnarvon. Here, at Milt (Inscription Point), a sheltered harbour is protected from the main channel by a long strand, which is covered in tiny shells. As we depart Milt, a school of tuna throw themselves out of the water in pursuit of baitfish, just feet from the boat. I am reminded of Gabori’s early ‘Plenty fish’ works, which show the ripples of their frenzied feeding, the shockwaves of their breaches crashing into those of the others just inches away. After a furious few minutes, the school moved on and we continued up the passage.

After a slow journey over miles of barely submerged reef, we hit deeper water as we rounded the northern point of a huge reef called Karuwai, which stands at least three metres out of the water, before heading towards Rukuthi (Oak Tree Point), the northern tip of the island. Sharp rocks and reefs fringe the coast, making it impossible to get closer than a few hundred metres from land, but from here, a different landscape emerges — rolling sandhills with scrubby vegetation rise behind stands of coastal casuarinas on long sandy beaches. This is where Sally Gabori’s family spent much of their time before being moved to Mornington Island in the late 1940s.

As we passed the northern tip of the island, we found ourselves surrounded to the north by ever more impressive reefs that towered above us like buildings, some crowned by small stands of casuarina or mangrove. As the peninsular drops away, a massive sand and mud flat emerges which stretches for hundreds of metres, buffering us from the north-western parts of the island. This area, and particularly the two river areas herein —Thundi and Makarrki, her father and brother’s countries, respectively — were particularly important in Sally Gabori’s life and her paintings. From our vantage point, the mouths of these rivers blended into the coastline behind a fence of stilted mangroves.

With the realisation that we would be unable to make land again today, and with the sun fading in the western Gulf, we started the long journey back to Gununa. To the east, the sky began to light up with stars, while the setting sunlight glowed through bushfire haze from Mornington. We powered across the now-millpond seas back to Gununa, where our night-time arrival was eagerly awaited by our colleagues from the art centre.

‘Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori: Dulka Warngiid – Land of all’
21 May – 28 August 2016 | Free
Buy the Publication

Highlight: Mavis Ngallametta ‘Wutan #2’

 
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Mavis Ngallametta, Kugu people, Australia b.1944 / Wutan #2 2014 / Natural pigments and charcoal with acrylic binder on canvas / Purchased 2015 with funds from Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Depicting a specific tract of land and its waterways in the Cape York region, leading to a site of significance to Mavis Ngallametta, Wutan #2 is the seventh work by this artist in the Collection and is a sister work to Ngak-pungarichan (Clearwater) 2013, on permanent display in our Indigenous Australian Art gallery. The Gallery has acquired this extraordinary work through the generosity of Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM.

One of the key works in the recently installed permanent Indigenous Australian art gallery is a sprawling landscape, dominated by browns and bauxite red fields, cut by lines of stark white pigment. The work, Ngak-pungarichen (Clearwater) 2013, by western Cape York artist Mavis Ngallametta, depicts a special site in her Kugu country and has become an instant favourite of many visitors. And so it has been with Mavis’s painting career — her unorthodox and highly idiosyncratic paintings, bustling with energy and life have seen her achieve a distinguished place among the top contemporary Australian painters a mere seven years after first putting paintbrush to canvas. Previously, Ngallametta was renowned as one of the Cape’s great weavers; like other senior Aboriginal weavers who have turned to painting relatively late in life, her works have a rhythmic linear complexity, evocative of her longer established cultural practices.

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Mavis Ngallametta, Kugu people, Australia b.1944 / Ngak-pungarichan (Clearwater) 2013 / Synthetic polymer paint and natural pigments with synthetic polymer binder on canvas / Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Recently, the Gallery has acquired a second painting by Ngallametta to accompany Ngak-pungarichen, as we continue to develop our strong holdings of major works by senior Cape York artists. This new work, Wutan #2 2014, is a large portrait-format landscape that uses its height to chart a tract of land and water, from tiny inland streams through to wild rivers and rivulets, to the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Wutan — an historically, culturally and personally significant site — sits at the mouth of the Archer River.

Wutan’s position at the mouth of one of the Cape’s great wild rivers ensured a rich hunting and story place for the local Wik and Kugu people. It was also the site of a radar station established by the Royal Australian Air Force in 1943, and locals have related stories of Japanese submarines entering the Archer River at this site. Many local men joined the Australian Armed Forces, working alongside their Torres Strait Islander neighbours in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion to protect the maritime borders of far north Queensland.

But for Ngallametta, Wutan has significance as a site of personal interaction — during the mission time, the school children would camp there. It is also her adopted son Edgar’s country, and he has moved back to manage the area. Ngallametta has said:

[Wutan] is my adopted son Edgar’s traditional place. He built a little shed there, it is a nice fishing place. For me it takes me right back to the time when I used to go here on school holiday. And I still go there now often. Even my friends who I take there enjoy it. Still today we like to go to that place, camping, fishing. There used to be a big coconut plantation. There is a well with fresh water. It is still there. That’s what we used to water the coconuts with. There used to be a boys dormitory where the point is a little further. We used to go schooling there when they were building the dormitories in Aurukun. We use to go to Amban, and then cross the river in dugout canoes. On Saturdays they used to bring us the rations. There were also lots of mango trees. There is one left now, a new shoot from the old days by the well. There were lots of banana trees, too. Every Sunday we swapped: People from Aurukun came and the ones at Wutan went back to Aurukun.1

Wutan #2 is installed for ‘GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art’, at GOMA until 11 October.

Endnote
1  Artist statement provided for the 2014 Telstra NATSIAA, published online at <http://www.natsiaa31.nt.gov.au/view-artwork/6/448>, accessed 11 February 2015.

Everywhen, Everywhere

 
Everywhen, Everywhere Installation view Queensland Art Gallery
Ron Hurley, Gurang Gurang/Mununjali people 1946-2002 / Albert Namatjira – Traditional Morph (series) 2002 (installation view) / Pencil, ink and synthetic polymer paint on paper / Gift of Gadens Lawyers through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2013 / © Ron Hurley 2002. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2015

Our new permanent Indigenous Australian Art gallery at QAG houses a range of works by artists from across the country and across time. When we engage in time-based discussions about the Dreaming, WEH Stanner’s concept of the ‘everywhen’ is useful, unifying and inclusive.

‘One cannot “fix” the Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen . . .’
WEH Stanner, 1953

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages have many words to describe the complexity of spirituality, beliefs and worldviews derived from both the deeds of epic ancestors and the fabric of everyday life, from the deep, remote past through to today and into the future. In central Australia it is called Tjukurrpa by many Western Desert peoples. In the Kimberley, it is known as Ngarrankarni, and further east around the Canning Stock Route, the Martu people used the word Manguny. Yolngu peoples of Arnhem Land use Djang or Wongar, and in the Tiwi Islands, Palineri. Around Cairns the Djabugay use Bulurru, while in the Brisbane area, the word Mogwaidjan literally translates as ‘the place of spirits’. Across the continent, dozens more words — each informed by the land from which it arose — point to both the diversity of Aboriginal peoples and languages and to the centrality of this system of belief to Aboriginal life.1

The Arrernte word Alcheringa (Altyerrenge) was among the earliest recorded by anthropologists Spencer and Gillen and gave rise to the translation ‘Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’.2 However, in 1953, anthropologist WEH Stanner noted that:

. . . neither ‘time’ nor ‘history’ as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have never been able to discover any Aboriginal word for ‘time’ as an abstract concept. And the sense of ‘history’ is wholly alien here.3

It was this sense of ‘ahistoricality’ that Stanner sought to convey when introducing the neologism ‘everywhen’, in contrast to ‘Dreamtime’ — which maintains that Aboriginal concepts, worldview and people themselves, be locked in a mystical space and place in the distant past, far removed from the here and now.

Since the opening of GOMA, works created pre 1970 have been shown in QAG and post 1970 works have been shown in GOMA. From an Aboriginal viewpoint, this distinction is largely inconsequential, and today, works that speak to each other across these chronological distinctions are being reunited. In the newly re-established Indigenous Australian Art gallery at QAG, a display underpinned by the notion of ‘everywhen’ combines works from the mid 1900s through to 2014, from across the continent — works that speak to ‘everywhen’, from ‘everywhere’.

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Groote Eylandt Community / Anindilyakwa people / Bark paintings 1948 (installation view) / Natural pigments on bark / Gifts of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land 1956 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Favourites, forgotten masterpieces and contemporary counterpoints from the Collection are all featured. A group of bark paintings, in which icons float on a black background, were collected in 1948 at Groote Eylandt by the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, a scientific expedition led by rogue anthropologist Charles Mountford. In 1956, at the annual meeting of state gallery directors, each institution chose 24 works for their own collection; this was our first major acquisition of works from an Aboriginal tradition.

Nym Bandak, one of the most important figures in early Aboriginal art, is featured with one major painting on masonite board, created in direct response to a map Stanner made of Bandak’s Diminh country.

After seeing the anthropologist’s topographical survey of his land, Bandak responded in kind, revealing story places both on the land and in the sky. This moment clearly illustrated the difference in vision between Aboriginal and new European Australians, and Bandak and Stanner would go on to work together, leaving an incredible legacy. Bandak was one of the key Aboriginal collaborators that helped Stanner to conceive his cross-cultural understandings.

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Installation view of Richard Bell’s Imagining victory, featuring Embassy 2013 / Canvas tent with annex, aluminium frame, rope and projection screen; synthetic polymer paint on board; and digital video projection from DVD: sound, colour / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

At the heart of the display stands a large military-style tent, a replica of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, by political artist and Australian cultural agitator Richard Bell. Although recently created, the work carries the spirit of the empowerment struggles of Australia’s Indigenous peoples of the 1970s. The Embassy was erected in 1972 as a poignant but humorous response to then prime minister William McMahon’s Australia Day announcement that no form of Aboriginal ownership of land would be recognised under the colonially imposed Australian legal system.4 Bell’s work embraces the energy of the era and importantly allows wider dialogues with the works in the space: Yirawala’s opposition to mining in Arnhem Land, which became a driving force behind his art production; the fervent work of the Papunya painters, who recorded their stories after being forcibly removed from their land; and the myriad other rarely recounted political stories that provide a wider Australian cultural context to the work of these great Aboriginal artists.

Titled Imagining Victory, Bell’s installation is not merely the reproduction of a political moment, but a space in which he challenges viewers to engage in an often difficult dialogue, and a place where we are encouraged to imagine what a victory for Aboriginal rights — particularly for Aboriginal sovereignty — would look like in a more equal future Australia.

Stanner concluded in his essay on the Dreaming that ‘the truth [of the Dreaming] seems to be that man, society and nature, and past, present and future, are at one together in a unitary system’.5 Here, works that reveal the past, operate in the present and imagine our future give an insight into Aboriginal histories, art, cultures and worldviews.

Endnotes
1  For more background on different words associated with the Dreaming, and a longer discussion, see http://theconversation.com/dreamtime-and-the-dreaming-anintroduction-20833.
2  ‘We have hitherto spoken of the Alcheringa in general terms, using the word to denote the whole period during which the mythical ancestors of the present Arunta tribe existed’, in Baldwin Spencer and FJ Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, London, Macmillan and Co., Ltd, 1899, p.387.
3  WEH Stanner, ‘The Dreaming’ (1953), in The Dreaming and Other Essays, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, 2010, pp.57–72.
4  Stanner.
5  ‘Collaborating for indigenous rights’ web portal, National Museum of Australia website, http://indigenousrights.net.au/land_rights/aboriginal_embassy,_1972/background, accessed 12 December 2014.

Highlight: Vincent Namatjira ‘Albert and Vincent’

 
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Vincent Namatjira, Western Aranda/Pitjantatjara people b.1983 / Albert and Vincent 2014 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Gift of Dirk and Karen Zadra through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2014. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Vincent Namatjira 2014. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2015

The generosity of Dirk and Karen Zadra means that this work by Vincent Namatjira, a member of one of Australia’s most well-known artistic families, can be displayed beside the painting that inspired it, and will enrich the ongoing importance of its famous subject.

Vincent Namatjira is one of the leading lights of the emerging generation of artists from remote central Australia. Namatjira is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and a descendant of the great artist Albert Namatjira. Vincent’s mother passed away when he was young, and he and his sister were uprooted from their country and placed into foster care in Western Australia. The period that followed was characterised by loss, with his sense of belonging and self eroded by his adoptive experience.

It was not my decision to leave Hermannsburg and go so far away, but I was just a child, I didn’t have any voice. That life, my childhood memories, are not very good. Adolescence was hard for me, I was so lost. I had to figure it all out for myself.1

At 18, Namatjira travelled to Ntaria to find his estranged extended family. Returning to his homeland, he drew strength from his reaffirmed connections to culture, language and country, and devoted much of his time to land management issues and training. On a trip through the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands), he met his soon-to-be wife, Natasha, and settled with her family at Kanpi. Natasha’s father, senior artist Jimmy Pompey, introduced Vincent to painting, and he soon began experimenting, in the more dominant dot style as well as the naive figurative style for which Pompey had become well known.

Namatjira and his young family visited Ntaria, where they would watch his aunt, the late Eileen Namatjira — a leader of the Hermannsburg Potters — paint and create art about their country and the legacy of their forebear, Albert Namatjira. These moments had a resounding impact on Vincent and he soon began to incorporate these important familial and national narratives into his own works.

Recently Namatjira has focused on portraiture, imagining and immortalising important historical figures and heroes. Many of his major works have featured his grandfather, Albert, but others have portrayed Queen Elizabeth II, and William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His recent depiction of Captain James Cook was acquired by the British Museum. Namatjira’s inquisitive and exploratory portrayals — largely free of any judgemental quality — of these historical figures of British dominion have endeared his works to a wide audience.

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William Dargie, Australia 1912-2003 / Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1957 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © QAGOMA

Albert and Vincent is the result of the artist’s visit to the Gallery in May 2014 to view the Collection work Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956 by Sir William Dargie. Previously Vincent had seen the work only as a low‑colour reproduction, and as a portrait painter whose work is often inspired by the image and cultural impact of his grandfather, he had a strong desire to view the Archibald Prize-winning portrait. Visiting the Gallery earlier in 2014, Namatjira spent many hours with the work, sitting in quiet reverence in the Australian art galleries, leaning a small mirror against a plinth (on which Daphne Mayo’s Olympian c.1946 stood) so that he could view and sketch himself with the portrait of his grandfather. Taking his sketches home to Tjurkula and finishing the work there, he imbued it with the conflicting emotions so often evoked by Albert’s stories, giving the portrait a celebratory feel while retaining a sombre sensibility.

Namatjira is one of the many grandchildren Albert was never able to meet, and through his portraits of his grandfather, Vincent is building his own connections to the Australian hero, while giving audiences an idea of the importance of Albert’s story and legacy within his own family.

I hope my grandfather would be quite proud, maybe smiling down on me; because I won’t let him go. I just keep carrying him on, his name and our families’ stories.2

The work was generously donated to the Gallery by Karen Zadra, the artist’s dealer, who identified that it should come to the Gallery where it can be displayed with the Dargie portrait, enriching the ongoing contemporary importance of its famous subject.

Endnotes
1 Artist’s biography, Marshall Arts website, http://www.marshallart.com.au/sites/default/files/Vincent%20web%20bio.pdf, accessed 17 December 2014.

2 Artist’s biography, Marshall Arts website, http://www.marshallart.com.au/sites/default/files/Vincent%20web%20bio.pdf, accessed 17 December 2014.

Highlight: Sally Gabori ‘Dibirdibi Country’

 
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Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori’ Kaiadilt people, Australia b.c.1924 / Dibirdibi Country 2012 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Purchased with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Sally Gabori 2012. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2014

Sally Gabori is one of the most important Australian painters and Aboriginal artists currently working. Dibirdibi Country 2012, recently acquired for the Collection with the generous support of Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, is among the best of her recent works. Here, we touch on some of the history behind the artist and her radiant painting.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born around 1924 on the south side of Bentinck Island, of the South Wellesley Island Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her Kaiadilt language name, Mirdidingkingathi, means ‘born at Mirdidingki’, and Juwarnda is her totem, the dolphin. Bentinck, inhabited for thousands of years by the Kaiadilt, was officially ‘discovered’ in 1623 by Jan Carstensz, commander of the ship Pera, and it was also one of the first parts of the Gulf of Carpentaria surveyed in detail by the explorer Matthew Flinders in 1802. After Flinders’s brief encounter, the Kaiadilt had relatively little contact with the settler society over the following 145 years.

In the late 1940s, however, severe drought and high tides affected low-lying Bentinck Island and soon the entire population was moved to Mornington Island. As a minority in the Lardil community on Mornington Island, the Kaiadilt were often excluded or forgotten during the various painting and art movements that occurred there. Gabori’s tenacity and seniority established a space for the women of her tiny community to paint and gave them a voice through art.

Sally Gabori began painting as an octogenarian in 2005 at Mornington Island Art Centre. Her immediate love of paint — the full spectrum of colour offered to her — triggered an outpouring of energy; her confident paintings of country quickly gaining her the recognition of the art world. While her works were and still are largely seen as abstraction, they are highly idiosyncratic mind mapped landscapes, in which layers of understanding of her place are loosely transcribed. A closer look reveals how country, colour and the mind’s eye combine to impart an intimate sense of who Sally Gabori is and where she is from.

The focus of this work is Gabori’s favourite location, and the land, songs and narratives associated with Dibirdibi (the Rock Cod ancestor) that Gabori maintained along with her husband Dibirdibi (Pat Gabori), before moving to Mornington Island. Now a nonagenarian, Gabori’s paintings have gradually become more restrained. The Gallery’s earlier large-scale work by Gabori, Dibirdibi Country 2008, is a complex and vibrant painting; no less than six clashing and complementary colours intertwine to depict the rockwalled fish traps and sea country of Dibirdibi. Yet this work, painted just four years later, uses only two colours — a dark navy blue and white — to mark the physical, metaphysical and cultural landscape of the area’s saltpans. Gabori has stated, ‘This is the big saltpan on my husband’s country on Bentinck Island’.

Restraining her palette, Sally Gabori surrenders nothing of her energy and power. Her supreme knowledge, experiences, her sense of longing and loss, and her deep love of country all radiate from this incredibly beautiful painting.

Dibirdibi Country 2012 is on display at QAG until 24 May 2015 as part of ‘Sublime: Contemporary Works from the Collection’.

An interview with Glenn Manser

 
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Arthur Tjatitjarra Robertson, Ngaanyatjarra people 1936-2011 / Tjinytjira 2006 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Gift of Glenn Manser through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2013. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Arthur Tjatitjara Robertson 2006. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2014

Private collector and Gallery benefactor Glenn Manser’s recent support of the Collection’s Indigenous Australian art holdings — to which he has gifted an astounding 16 works in the past 18 months — reflects a more longstanding relationship with the Gallery that began in 2008. Bruce McLean spoke to Glenn Manser about what building a collection means to him.

Bruce McLean | What was it that first drew your attention to Aboriginal art and stimulated the interest that compelled you to begin a collection?

Glenn Manser | I guess my first real contact with Australian Indigenous art was when I visited the Red Centre quite a few years ago now. I had a few hours spare and wandered into the old Papunya Tula Artists gallery in Alice Springs. I was instantly mesmerised by the quality and diversity of the art on display. I didn’t quite comprehend the motifs in the paintings or the different stories that were inherent in the men’s and women’s art. However, I subsequently made it my business to learn as much as I could about Western Desert art, and particularly that of the Pintupi people, who painted for Papunya Tula Artists.

Bruce McLean | What was the first work of Aboriginal art that you ever acquired?

Glenn Manser | The very first piece I purchased, if I remember correctly, was a 122 x 61cm earlier piece by Papunya Tula artist Makinti Napanangka. It was purchased from Michael Eather’s Fireworks Gallery here in Brisbane. This piece is now in the Owen Wagner Collection at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.

Bruce McLean | Do you have any focus areas within your collection and how have they developed?

Glenn Manser | The focus has essentially remained the same, i.e., work sourced from art centres that are owned and directed by the traditional Aboriginal people of the Western Desert. Centres like Papunya Tula Artists, Tjungu Palya, Tjala and the Spinifex Arts Project and so on have provided talented Indigenous artists with the opportunity to tell stories about their own traditions . . . Over recent years, however, a greater effort has been made to collect works by the descendants of Albert Namatjira. The Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra/Many Hands Art Centre was established in 2004, and I have attempted to collect some of the best works by the third and fourth generation watercolourists. Works by Elton Wirri, Mervyn Rubuntja, Albert Namatjira Jr, Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka and others form the basis of the collection. It is important to me to keep the legacy of this most prominent Australian family alive for future generations. Private collector and Gallery benefactor Glenn Manser’s recent support of the Collection’s Indigenous Australian art holdings — to which he has gifted an astounding 16 works in the past 18 months — reflects a more longstanding relationship with the Gallery that began in 2008.

Bruce McLean | Personally, what has building a collection meant for you?

Glenn Manser | The process of putting together a collection has involved a considerable amount of self-education, so that I can understand what artists are expressing about their experiences and their culture. I have a better understanding of what country and disenfranchisement mean to Indigenous Australian people, whether from remote areas or urban centres. A real respect for those like Sarah Brown, CEO of the Western Desert Dialysis Unit, and Paul Sweeney, Manager of Papunya Tula Artists, and others who attempt to improve people’s lives has also grown through my association with Aboriginal art. The aesthetic pleasure of collecting has been underpinned by a far more insightful appreciation of what art means to the artists themselves and their communities.

Bruce McLean | How did you begin your relationship with QAGOMA?

Glenn Manser | I have always been a visitor to QAGOMA but took a greater interest in the Gallery when I happened upon the exhibition ‘Namatjira to Now’ (in 2008). It coincided with my own collection focus at the time. It presented interesting insights into the place of Albert Namatjira and the Hermannsburg School in Australian art and history. I also saw a natural synergy between the exciting direction the Gallery was taking under new director Chris Saines, the vision articulated in the amazing ‘My Country: Contemporary Art From Black Australia’ exhibition, and my own collection preferences.

Bruce McLean | Do you think private philanthropy is important in art today, especially with regard to Aboriginal art?

Glenn Manser | For a large public gallery that services not only Brisbane but regional centres as well, it is important that it holds a large, diverse collection of Indigenous Australian art. While a focus on Queensland Indigenous art is necessary, it is important that QAGOMA also holds substantial collections that reflect the full Australian context. With the Gallery budget stretched in many directions, it is especially important that individuals with an interest in Indigenous art give generously to the Foundation, so that all Queenslanders can appreciate the complexity and remarkable beauty of the art of the First Australians and their descendents.

Glenn Manser was interviewed in March 2014