Sally Gabori

July 8, 2016
My Country 2005Synthetic polymer paint on canvasCollection: The Estate of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori© Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori. Licensed by Viscopy
My Country 2005Synthetic polymer paint on canvasCollection: The Estate of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori© Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori. Licensed by Viscopy

Indigenous art is never purely “abstract” but it comes mighty close in the works of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (c.1924-2015), the subject of a eye-opening retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery. Gabori’s paintings may refer to Bentick Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where she lived until the age of 24, but to call her a landscapist is woefully inadequate. According to Judith Ryan of the National Gallery of Victoria, Gabori may have gone further than any other painter “in sabotaging ‘ooga booga’ preconceptions of Aboriginal art.”

Ooga booga? There’s a common assumption that every Aboriginal painting is based on the Dreamings an artist inherits from his or her ancestors. We imagine that if we learn the appropriate symbolic language any picture may be decoded – but with Gabori’s work the story seems less important than the manner in which it is told. These large-scale symphonies of colour transcend topography and reach for the cosmos.

Willem de Kooning 'Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point' (1963)

Willem de Kooning ‘Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point’ (1963)

Gabori used colour with a freedom that Van Gogh might have envied, but her work has more in common with that of another Dutchman – Willem De Kooning. Having just seen the latter’s Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963), in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the affinities with Gabori came surging to mind. Both artists employ patches of colour to evoke the atmosphere of a particular place. Both extrapolate from the natural world to create strikingly informal compositions that still seem to obey some underlying pictorial logic.

There the resemblance ends. De Kooning may not have had a solo exhibition until he was well into his fifties, but Gabori was 81 years old when she made her first painting. That debut picture, My Country (2005), was an amazingly free and confident beginning to a career that would flourish for slightly less than a decade, echoing the late-blooming efforts of other notable indigenous artists, notably Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who took up painting in her late 70s.

The key to Gabori’s unique style probably lies in her background as one of a small group of people called the Kaiadilt, whose occupation of tiny Bentick Island (which measures only 16 X 18 kilometres) dates back 6,000 years. The Kaiadilt lived mainly on seafood, which was always abundant, and developed their own language.

This age-old pattern was broken in 1948 when a severe cyclone left the island inundated and contaminated its sources of fresh water. With great reluctance the Kaidilt agreed to relocate to Gununa on Mornington Island under the care of missionaries, but the move had a devastating effect on the community. Anthropologist, Nicholas Evans, writes: “for several years, no child was born and survived, rupturing forever the chain by which one sibling transmits their language to the next. No child born after the move has ever mastered the intricate Kaiadilt language.”

In 2005 Gabori was one of only seven people who still spoke the Kaiadilt language fluently. English was a foreign tongue that she hardly spoke at all.

If we accept Wittgenstein’s adage that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” it’s clear that Sally Gabori saw the world in a very different way to most other people. An intense attachment to Country, coupled with the trauma of relocation, made her a permanent outsider on the island where she spent the last 67 years of her life. When she took up painting it allowed her to find pictorial equivalents for deep feelings about her homeland.

Gabori’s first painting bore no resemblance to the work of other artists on Mornington Island. My Country (2005) uses different shades of blue, presumably to convey different aspects of sea and sky, while the earth is represented by patches of yellow and red. There is a surprising variety of brushstrokes and a willingness to leave parts of the canvas bare. This is unusual for a first-time artist because most amateur painters feel compelled to cover every bit of the picture plane.

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 2005. Licensed by Viscopy 2016.

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 2005. Licensed by Viscopy 2016.

Gabori took a contrary approach in another piece, All the fish (2005) – a four-metre-long canvas in which the fish of Bentick Island are portrayed as circles of vibrant colour jostling in the water. To put these two early pictures alongside each other is to see an original vision taking shape.

Curator, Bruce McLean, tells us that Gabori “painted six key places hundreds of times each.” She may not have lived in these places for over 60 years but they remained imprinted on her memory. Each site would generate a different mode of depiction.

One is struck by the colour, applied in ragged fashion in paintings such as Outside Story Place and My Father’s Country (both 2006). If these works had appeared during the heyday of New York abstraction there would have been much discussion about the edges where contrasting colours meet. Lavender abuts pale green which touches bright red; a wonky circle of dark blue rubs up against planes of white, orange and hot pink.

Gabori looks inward, to her memories and feelings, not outward at the landscape itself. In the My Country paintings of 2010 (cats. 22 & 23), she remembers the place she was born, where a creek ran from inland to the sea. That creek appears as a black gash in a roughly-daubed field of dirty white or red. One need only recall the dots and lines of the Papunya Tula artists to appreciate the radical untidiness of Gabori’s work. At an age when most artists are slowing down she emerged as a gestural painter with a highly physical approach.

Thundi 2011Synthetic polymer paint on linenCollection: Dr Terry Cutler, Melbourne© Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori. Licensed by ViscopyPhotograph: Chris Groenhou

Thundi 2011Synthetic polymer paint on linenCollection: Dr Terry Cutler, Melbourne© Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori. Licensed by ViscopyPhotograph: Chris Groenhout

The show has been divided into sections relating to the parts of country associated with Gabori’s father, grandfather and husband. The variations in style do not simply reflect different kinds of terrain, they encapsulate the way Gabori felt about the most important men in her life. The paintings grouped under the heading Thundi – My Father’s Country are almost monochromatic, large in scale, with busy surfaces. There are no motifs or symbols that might identify features in a landscape. It is as if we are looking at billowing smoke or clouds.

The Nyinyilki paintings refer to a coastal site with a freshwater lagoon. Works such as cats. 17, 18 and 25 could be read as aerial maps but Gabori’s style is as vigorous as ever – laying in the broken outlines of the seashore in deepest black. The sparing use of pink or turquoise reveals an instinctive sense of balance, with large areas of white set against strips of black and patches of colour.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia 1924-2015 / Dibirdibi Country 2008 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Purchased 2008 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori 2008/ Licensed by Viscopy, 2016

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia 1924-2015 / Dibirdibi Country 2008 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Purchased 2008 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori 2008/ Licensed by Viscopy, 2016

I felt the Nyinyilki pictures were the most satisfying and sophisticated paintings in the show, but when people think of Gabori they usually imagine something far more colourful, such as the 2 X 6 metre Dibirdibi Country (2008). It’s an overwhelming work that never allows the eye to settle on any part of the composition.

Gabori’s spontaneous manner of painting was inevitably a hit-or-miss affair, and this has led to a stoush between her dealer, Beverly Knight, and Pat Corrigan, who has published a book on the artist’s works in his collection. Knight contends the pictures were substandard and should never have been released for sale. Corrigan – a wheeler-dealer, but also a renowned philanthropist – argues that the time was right for a book celebrating a special talent.

Ultimately it is difficult to draw lines between first and second class work when an artist paints as quickly and freely as Gabori. The best pieces stand out but one could argue forever about the minor pictures. If the artist is good enough even the most trivial works have an inherent interest, as one may learn a lot from apparent failures. Although the merits of the paintings may be disputed, the Corrigan book must be seen as a valid project and a useful supplement to the QAG retrospective.

There is, of course, no substitute for seeing the works themselves, and it’s to be hoped many people from NSW will make the effort to view this survey either at the QAG, or later in the year at the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s conceivable that Gabori may be the last of the great indigenous painters to be ‘discovered’ late in life, although with Aboriginal art I’ve learnt to never say “never again”.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori:
Dulka Warngiid – Land of All
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 28 August.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 23 Sept – 29 Jan. 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 9th July, 2016