Dibirdibi Country

 

Aboriginal artist Sally Gabori (c.1924–2015) is one of the most important Australian painters and her work Dibirdibi Country 2012 is among the best of her 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.

ARTWORK STORIES: Delve into QAGOMA’s Collection artwork highlights for a rich exploration of the work and its creator

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.

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Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori ‘Dibirdibi Country’ 2012

Sally Gabori Dibirdibi Country
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 | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda/Copyright Agency

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.

Bruce Johnson McLean is former Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs on the QAGOMA Blog are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

#QAGOMA

Albert Namatjira’s lasting legacy

 

The life and work of Albert Namatjira have left a lasting legacy for artists throughout the country. As a boy in the 1950s, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, a Mara painter from the Gulf of Carpentaria, met Albert Namatjira. For many artists, Namatjira’s use of non-traditional colours and techniques was a liberating influence and, when Riley took up painting later in life, his richly toned landscapes, which place his ancestors within their country, were lauded around the world.

RELATED: Albert and Vincent Namatjira

RELATED: Albert Namatjira

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Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Garimala (The Two Snakes) 1988
Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Australia 1937-2002 / Garimala (The Two Snakes) 1988 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Purchased 1990 with funds from ARCO Coal Australia Inc. through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The Estate of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala. Courtesy of Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

Lin Onus, a Yorta Yorta artist from Victoria, achieved acclaim for paintings of his country around the Barmah Forest on the Murray River, which combined elements of landscape painting, realism and various Aboriginal painting styles. His references to the landscape painting style were influenced by Aboriginal artists such as Nyoongar artist Revel Cooper and Koori artist Ronald Bull.

Lin Onus, Morumbeeja Pitoa (Floods and moonlight) 1993
Lin Onus, Australia 1948-1996 / Morumbeeja Pitoa (Floods and moonlight) 1993 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1995. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Lin Onus Estate 1993/Licensed by Viscopy 2017

Aboriginal artists from across the country were active in the post-Namatjira period, many of them adopting his style as an Aboriginal painting style before the rise in popularity of the dot painting style in the late 1970s.

Billy Benn Perrurle, an Anmatyerr man from Central Australia, also recalled meeting Albert Namatjira as a boy. Benn was taught by his elder sisters Ally and Gladdy Kemarre to paint on his body in the ‘Utopia’ style, but it was in an expressionistic landscape style that he made his mark. His influences ranged from the Hermannsburg School, whose artists were renowned in the Alice Springs town camps where Benn began making his works, to the Chinese calligraphic traditions taught to him by the Chinese wife of a mica miner.

Bruce McLean is Former Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA

Kwementyaye Benn,, Artyetyerre - Harts Range 2008
Kwementyaye Benn, Australia 1943-2012 / Artyetyerre – Harts Range 2008 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Billy Benn Perrurle 2008/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

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Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country.

It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

#QAGOMA

 

Arrernte Watercolours integral in the Namatjira story

 

The Hermannsburg School of watercolour painting is the longest continuing contemporary Aboriginal art movement, spanning the period from the mid 1930s to today. This important movement was established at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) before moving to Alice Springs, 125 kilometres to the east. Here, the families of the original painters have continued the tradition, living and working in squalid ‘town camps’. While the movement endures as a significant genre in contemporary Australian art, the Gallery had acquired only a small group of seven works by the current generation of watercolour painters. The acquisition of this comprehensive collection of works from the current and recent generations of artists, courtesy of Glenn Manser, greatly adds to our strong holdings of early works, making the Gallery’s historical to- contemporary Hermannsburg School collection the strongest nationally.

After a rise in popularity through the 1950s and 60s, most artists of the Hermannsburg School moved from the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission to Alice Springs, effectively shifting the movement. These artists moved to town in search of a better life for their families after restrictions were lifted on the movements of Aboriginal people. However, prejudice prevailed and access to housing and basic services was limited, with many people forced to live in makeshift corrugated iron huts along the river and creek beds on the outskirts of town. Today, many descendants of these artists live in these same town camps around Alice Springs. Importantly, family and tradition have remained strong, allowing the Hermannsburg School to survive today. Family remains important in the group, with many artists from the original painting families — Namatjira, Pareroultja, Rubuntja — showing the influence of their antecedents while still developing their own distinct styles.

Lenie Namatjira ‘Yapalpa (Glen Helen Station)’

Lenie Namatjira, Arrernte people, Australia b.1951 / Yapalpa (Glen Helen Station) 2010 / Watercolour on paper with board backing / 17 x 26cm / The Glenn Manser Collection. Gift of Glenn Manser through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2016. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lenie Namatjira. Licensed by the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre

Lenie Namatjira was born in Raggats Well, Glen Helen Station — the subject of the work illustrated here — Glen Helen Station 2010. A granddaughter to Albert Namatjira and daughter to Oscar, whose works are also in the Collection, she paints in their tradition, creating watercolours of the landscape west of Hermannsburg. Many of Lenie’s works are drawn from childhood memories of her country. Oscar Namatjira returned to his family at the Hermannsburg Mission and took up painting, like his father, after attending the mission school and completing three years of service in the Army Labour gang. For a year, he acted as his father’s truck driver, driving the artist and his supplies to different painting locations. Oscar learnt from his father and became a skilled practitioner in his own right. He also raised a large family, Lenie being one of ten children. She and her siblings (Euphrene, Reginald, Saleen, Wallace, Albert Jr (illustrated (West MacDonnell Ranges) 2009), Marcia, Donald, Rosabelle, Gwenda and Bessie) were all raised at Hermannsburg.1

Albert Namatjira Jr ‘West MacDonnell Ranges’

Albert Namatjira Jr, Arrernte people, Australia 1949 – 2013 / (West MacDonnell Ranges) 2009 / Watercolour on paper with board backing / 26 x 36cm / The Glenn Manser Collection. Gift of Glenn Manser through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2016. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Albert Namatjira Jr. Licensed by the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre

Arrernte region

Although the Western Desert acrylic ‘dot’ paintings, which originated at Papunya in the early 1970s, have overshadowed the watercolour tradition in recent times, appreciation is again increasing, mainly due to the dedication of the artists and the creation of the Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra/Many Hands Art Centre in 2002 — the centenary year of the birth of Albert Namatjira, the most well-known artist of the Hermannsburg School. Many Hands provides long-term support for artists from the Western Arrernte region, including descendants of the School. Here, the artists continue painting their country in the Arrernte tradition of their kin, creating strong and dynamic pictorial representations of country.

RELATED: Albert and Vincent Namatjira

RELATED: Albert Namatjira

Bruce Johnson McLean is Former Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA. He is a member of the Wierdi (Wirrid) people of the Birri Gubbi nation of Wribpid (central Queensland).

Endnote
1 Drawn from ‘Lenie Namatjira: Biography’, Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, Alice Springs, 2017, manyhandsart.com.au/artist/lenie-namatjira, accessed 13 January 2017.

Glenn Manser’s support of the Collection’s Indigenous Australian art holdings — to which he has recently contributed 119 watercolours by Arrernte artists from the Northern Territory — reflects his longstanding relationship with the Gallery.

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs on the QAGOMA Blog are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Featured image detail: Lenie Namatjira  Yapalpa (Glen Helen Station) 2010

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Namatjira story

 

Albert Namatjira (28 July 1902 – 8 August 1959) was a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal artist from the MacDonnell Ranges, west of Alice Springs in Central Australia. His Western-style landscapes, different from traditional Aboriginal art, made him a celebrated pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art in the 1950s and the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation.

In 1934, in a small room of the local Hermannsburg Mission where he lived, Namatjira viewed an exhibition of watercolour paintings by Melbourne artist Rex Battarbee. Struck by their depictions of his country, he began to teach himself to paint landscapes and in 1936 he accompanied Battarbee as a guide on a painting trip through the Western MacDonnell Ranges.

He quickly developed a unique style and his paintings became popular throughout Australia, though critics were divided. Superficially, his landscapes appeared conventionally rendered, but he painted ‘his country’ – places imbued with his ancestral connections.

Namatjira’s fame grew during the 1950s and he was feted on visits to the east coast. In 1953 he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal, and the following year he met the Queen. In 1956, Sir William Dargie’s Portrait of Albert Namatjira won the Archibald Prize.

RELATED: Albert and Vincent Namatjira

RELATED: Albert Namatjira

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

In 1957, Albert Namatjira and his wife Rubina were the first Aboriginal people granted Australian citizenship. Yet, despite fame and citizenship, his life remained heavily controlled, reflecting the tragic gap between the rhetoric and reality of Australia’s assimilation policies. By the end of the 1950s, his family was living in a creek bed on the outskirts of Alice Springs. In 1959, at the age of 57, Namatjira died of what his community considered a ‘broken heart’.

A skilled artist and a proud Arrernte (Aranda) elder, Albert Namatjira continues to inspire. A school of painting has formed around him, and many artists have been compelled to tell his story through their own works.

Bruce McLean is Former Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA

Know Brisbane through the Collection / Read more about the Australian Collection / Watch video on Indigenous Australian Art / Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube to go behind-the-scenes

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country.

It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Featured image detail: William Dargie Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956

#AlbertNamatjira #QAGOMA

The story of Judy Watson’s ‘tow row’

 

The story of Judy Watson’s tow row transcends its physical form and speaks of cultural retrieval and community activation. This stunning work, generously funded by the Queensland Government, the Neilson Foundation, Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, and others, is a fitting acknowledgment of the ancestor spirit of Kurilpa.

Public art has the power to change the cultural landscape in which it stands. Recently, Judy Watson’s impressive cast bronze sculpture, tow row, was installed in the forecourt of GOMA. Watson’s work was the recipient of the Queensland Indigenous Artist Public Art Commission (QIAPAC), a competitive process that would ultimately see a major work by an established Queensland contemporary artist of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage take pride of place at the entrance to GOMA. The commission is part of a broader project in which the Gallery engages with Indigenous art, culture and community, as highlighted by the recent adoption of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Strategy.

DELVE DEEPER: tow row

Watson’s sculpture is a reimagination of a traditional fishing net used by Aboriginal people, including on the Brisbane River, barely 100 metres away. The nets, locally known as ‘tow row’, were used to scoop up fish near the banks of the river, or to catch entire schools of fish in smaller creeks, where fishermen would stand midstream during the dropping tide, trapping the fish. Traditionally, this type of fishing was the work of men, and senior fishermen took pride in large bone callouses developed by binding the wooden armature of the nets to their wrists and forearms.1

The importance of the correlation between past, present and future is acknowledged by Watson who, in her initial proposal, noted that:

[The] use of fibre and water as the conduit for catching fish evokes ideas of sustenance, family, culture, survival. The fragility of the object cloaks its hidden strength, a metaphor for the resilience of Aboriginal people who have held onto the importance of land, culture and family through adversity and deprivation. It will be a lasting memory of the indelible Aboriginal presence that is a part of this shared space.

Judy Watson

tow row, like so many of Watson’s public works, was the product of a robust, collaborative exchange. No tow row is known to have been made in the last half century, so Watson engaged local Quandamooka weaver Leecee Carmichael and together they examined the weaving techniques of local nets in the Queensland Museum. Carmichael recreated the knotting techniques to make an enormous net with the help of numerous members of local Indigenous and non- Indigenous communities, which was then cast in bronze by UAP (Urban Art Projects), an internationally recognised local foundry with whom Watson has worked for over 20 years.

Mogwaidja is the local language term for the story/place of the spirits of ancestors, equivalent to the dreaming. It explains that the Mogwai (ancestor) whose spirit imbues this area is Kuril, a young female weaver. And so this sculpture of a woven object, and its permanent home at the entrance of one of Kurilpa’s most significant institutions, seems a fitting acknowledgment to the story of this place.

The story of Watson’s work is one that transcends its physical form and speaks of cultural retrieval and community activation. By creating this contemporary public sculpture, Watson enables us to glance at the history of the site. She has also encouraged the renewal of a weaving and netting tradition dormant for decades, and allows us to see a present where local Indigenous art, culture and traditions can stand strong and proud alongside — and in front of — some of the world’s greatest contemporary art at GOMA.

Bruce McLean is former Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA

Endnote
1  Constance Campbell Petrie, Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1992 (first published 1904), p.73.

Judy Watson, Waanyi people, Australia b.1959 / tow row 2016 / Bronze / 193 x 175 x 300cm (approx.) / Commissioned 2016 to mark the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Gallery of Modern Art. This project has been realised with generous support from the Queensland Government, the Neilson Foundation and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Judy Watson

QAGOMA is appreciative of funding from the Queensland Government and generous philanthropic support from the Neilson Foundation, Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, Gina Fairfax, and Professor Susan Street, AO, who have made this Commission possible.

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.

It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs on the QAGOMA Blog are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

#QAGOMA

A Journey to Sally Gabori’s Bentinck Island

 
blog-Fishing resort at Milt, Sweers Island
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.

blog-Minakuri
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.

blog-MIRDIDINGKINGATHI(MrsGABORI)_Nyinyilki2010_BeverlyAndAnthonyKnight_003
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.

blog-Fishing resort at Milt, Sweers Island, looking toward Nyinyilki on Bentinck Island
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
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