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.

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.

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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