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 wasn’t until 2005, at 81 years of age, that she first picked up a paintbrush at a workshop held on Mornington Island. The work that she produced was My Country, an experimental work 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 over two thousand 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 multi-faceted nature of the Bentick landscape.
Fifty of Gabori’s works have been collected for the exhibition by QAGOMA Curator of Indigenous Australian Art, Bruce McLean. The collection encompasses the breadth of Gabori’s work, well as the first and final works she produced, providing in a snapshot the evolution of her incredible talent and career.
Gabori paints with bold strokes, creating pieces of texture and movement from smaller canvasses 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. “The colours reflected part of her life as well.”
All of these colours are on display in a highlight piece of the exhibition: Gabori’s painting table. Lined in colour and paint from a thousand different canvasses, the tabletop is a work of art in and of itself, mounted in the centre of the exhibition. Like the rest of her paintings, her unwavering brushstrokes are present even here, applied with authority and certainty.
“She’d been through so much in life that three generations of people wouldn’t have experienced,” said McLean, “So when it came to painting she had nothing to fear.”
Land Of All will be on display in the Queensland Art Gallery from May 21 to August 28. Admission is free.
Words by Sarah Neilsen
Images by Georgina Ashford