Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori had close to a century of stories to tell by the time she passed away early last year – stories of a traditional life lived with family on Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria; stories of her brother, known as King Alfred, and his sworn rival Pat Gabori, whom Sally would later marry; stories of the entire Bentinck population being moved to Mornington Island by missionaries in the 1940s; and most apparent of all, stories of Country. Though Mrs Gabori could never return permanently to Bentinck, she revisited her birth country occasionally by charter flight from Mornington.
Like many Kaiadilt women, she was a skilled practitioner of traditional crafts who maintained her deep connection to Country through song. Just over ten years ago, at the age of 81 Mrs Gabori, who had previously never picked up a paintbrush, embraced a new medium. This was all the more remarkable not just for her advanced age, but because the Kaiadilt people had no tradition of visual art making. While her painting feels utterly contemporary at one level, it is indivisibly rooted at another in a customary understanding of her ancestral country.
To quote curator Bruce McLean, from the exhibition catalogue:
Sally Gabori’s entrance into art came without preconception, without the weight of a tradition to follow. Here was a space for something completely new, a space for pure innovation.
Among the more than 50 paintings represented, ‘Dulka Warngiid – Land of All’ traces stylistic shifts over a decade of practice through paintings of place. It traces a personal journey into the world of colour while simultaneously mapping the land and the sea and the intersections between them. These paintings – like the vast white and indigo tract of Dibirdibi Country 2012, painted in Mrs Gabori’s 88th year – are swept along by the sheer passion and energy and love of their maker’s marks.
Looking at satellite photographs of these very same lands which are juxtaposed with a number of paintings in the publication – there is a more than striking correspondence between ancient and modern perspectives. This is something that I think is not often enough observed about these works and others like them. They might seem to have all the hallmarks of abstraction but they are stubbornly representational.
That much shone out on the walls around the Queensland Art Gallery’s iconic Watermall, when three of Mrs Gabori’s paintings were hung as the exclusive backdrop to the G20 World Leaders’ Dinner, in 2014. Mornington Island is not so remote from the world after all.
‘Dulka Warngiid – Land of All’ was in its early stages when it was announced, in February 2015, that Mrs Gabori had died peacefully surrounded by family and friends. She had just learned about our plans, was excited by the prospect of this exhibition, and we would simply have loved for her to have been here for the opening. We are all the more grateful, then, that so many of her family, her daughters and grand-children, were at the official opening on Friday evening 20 May – they have much to feel proud of. We’re very proud to share with the world the work of a truly extraordinary artist, whose legacy is her vibrant and powerful picturing of Country.