Queensland Art Gallery is currently celebrating the unique career and work of Kaiadilt artist Sally Gabori in Dulka Warngiid – Land Of All.
Born on Bentick Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria in far north Queensland in the 1920s, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori spent much of her life having never touched paint or a canvas. A member of the Kaiadilt people, she lived a traditional life on Bentick Island and later Mornington Island after the population was relocated by missionaries in the 1940s. There was no tradition of painting on Bentick Island, and it was not until 2005, at 81 years of age, that Gabori first picked up a paintbrush at a workshop held on Mornington Island. The work that she produced was My Country, an experimental depiction that captured her birthplace Mirdidingki. The canvas showed potential, attracting the encouragement of senior Lardil artist Melville Escott and the organisers of the workshop.
My Country set the tone for what would become an expansive and driven body of work, encompassing more than 2000 paintings between 2005 and her death in 2015. Gabori’s work centres around five major locations that influenced her life; each drawn hundreds of different times to capture the fluid and multifaceted nature of the Bentick landscape.
Fifty of Gabori’s works have been collected by Queensland Art Gallery Curator of Indigenous Australian Art, Bruce McLean. The collection, Land of All, truly is a celebration of Gabori’s extraordinary life and spirit, including the first and last works she produced, alongside recordings of her singing and her painting table. “When she was painting she was laughing, and she’d talk to the paintings. When she was reunited with the works, she’d jump out of her wheelchair and start singing about the person and the place in it,” McLean said. “It’s important to bring that connectedness and sense of the artist to the work.”
Gabori paints with bold strokes, creating pieces of texture and movement from smaller works to the enormous four metre canvases. The landscape is treated as if the viewer is a bird looking down, seeing the details of the landscape bleed together. Vivid colour dominates many of her works, frequently featuring bright blues, reds and pinks.
“That’s what her art was; it was about her life,” said McLean. “She wore high colour, floral dresses every day, a bright pink beret. That all comes through in the choice of colours she had as well. Her outfit would often coincide with what she would paint.”
McLean says, “She’d been through so much in life that three generations of people wouldn’t have experienced. Living a traditional life and then going to Mornington and being confined there for 60 years before going back. Then getting this one little chance at the age of 81 to do something completely new. So when it came to painting she had nothing to fear.”
Words by Sarah Neilsen | Portraits by Inge Cooper | Gallery images by Georgina Ashford