Sally Gabori’s Dulka Warngiid – Land of All


Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born around 1924 near a small creek on the southern side of Bentinck Island, in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. This small island, measuring around 16 by 18 kilometres, is the Dulka Warngiid, the land of all, of the Kaiadilt people.

‘Danda ngijinda dulk, danda ngijinda malaa, danda ngad’
(This is my Land, this is my Sea, this is who I am)
Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori

Sally Gabori lived an entirely traditional life for her first 23 years, moving between her family’s main homeland sites and living according to an unbroken ancestral culture. In 1948, following devastating drought, storms and a near four-metre tidal surge, she and her kin were moved to the Presbyterian Mission on nearby Mornington Island. She remained there in enforced exile until the 1980s when the Land Rights movement saw small outstations erected on Bentinck. Remoteness and lack of infrastructure meant, however, that Gabori would spend most of her life away from her country. Yet she always kept it in her heart, singing its songs with family and maintaining Kaiadilt culture.

DELVE DEEPER: The life and art of Sally Gabori

In 2005 Gabori was introduced to painting, and her unique style, vision and story captured the imagination of the art world. Mixing wet paints on canvas to create tonal shifts, she evoked geological or ecological flux on Bentinck, such as the transition from land to sea, while hard-edged colour contrasts describe structures that for thousands of years have remained unchanged, such as the ancient rock-walled fish traps, or the cliffs bordering the ocean. Gabori’s paintings resonate with the colours and textures of Kaiadilt country and the intensity and complexities of her history and memories.

Sally Gabori ‘My Country’

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia c.1924–2015 / My Country 2005 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Collection: The Estate of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori / Courtesy: Mirndiyan Gununa Mornington Island Art / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori/Copyright Agency

My Country 2005 was created at a workshop in 2005 at the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre and was the first ever produced by the artist. During the dry season, many of Gabori’s family returned to Bentinck Island but she remained on Mornington Island with her husband. She was persuaded to attend a painting workshop led by curator Simon Turner from Woolloongabba Art Gallery. This first work was praised by senior Lardil artist Melville Escott. Gabori soon developed a love of painting and returned to the art centre whenever possible. Upon her family’s return, Gabori showed them her paintings and they rallied around her, creating a small but incredibly vibrant Kaiadilt art movement.

Early paintings

In 2005 on Mornington Island, home to the Lardil people, at about 81 years of age, Gabori first picked up a paintbrush and began to memorialise her homeland. Although the Lardil people have a strong and proud art history, the Kaiadilt community had little exposure to art, or any comparable form of mark-making, prior to 2005. Traditional tools, objects, or bodies were scarcely painted, as was the tradition elsewhere in Aboriginal Australia. The sole occasion of Kaiadilt people ever recording their stories through art-like media was in a group of drawings made at the request of ethnologist Norman B Tindale during his expedition to Bentinck Island in 1960, today housed in the South Australian Museum.

At community painting workshops Gabori — previously known as a weaver of traditional bags, baskets and nets — became the first Kaiadilt person to engage with art and her love of paint and painting quickly grew. Her first painting, My Country 2005 featured significant sites and memories from her birthplace around Mirdidingki Creek, on the south side of Bentinck Island. A further six of Gabori’s earliest works show her focus on the places of her family: Thundi, her father’s country, Makarrki, her brother’s Country, and Dibirdibi Country, associated with her husband.

Within months Gabori had developed both in confidence and technique and was producing four-and-a-half metre paintings crowded with hundreds of concentric circles, conjuring frenzied schools of fish feeding at her favourite fishing places on Bentinck. Paintings from late 2005 through to 2007 show the rapid development of an expressive gestural style which would become her trademark through the later years of her career and life.

Sally Gabori All the fish’

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia c.1924–2015 / All the fish 2005 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas /Gift of Jim Cousins, AO and Libby Cousins through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2013 / Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori/Copyright Agency

 All the fish 2005 is one of around six large-scale works produced within the first year of Gabori’s career. These works conjure a large school of fish erupting from the bountiful reef-laden waters around Bentinck Island to feed on smaller fish or other marine creatures at the surface. As each fish breaks the water’s surface a wave radiates from the disruption and, for a few seconds, a circle, or hundreds of them, remain as the memory of the interaction between beings and place. These paintings allude to schools of mullet, queen fish, mackerel or tuna, but never figuratively depict them. Instead, Gabori focused on the impact they and their activities had on the land.

Sally Gabori painting at Mornington Island Arts and Crafts, 2005 / Image courtesy: Woolloongabba Art Gallery

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.