Sally Gabori's immediate love of paint and the full spectrum of colour offered to her triggered an outpouring of ideas including depicting her country and her ancestral stories. Whilst her works could be recognised as abstraction, they are actually land and seascapes and her fascination with colour seems as significant as the content itself.
Gabori was on born in about 1924 on Bentinck Island, a small island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. As a young woman she lived a traditional lifestyle largely uninfluenced by the encroachment of Europeans. She gathered food, including shellfish from the complex system of stone fish traps her people had built in the shallows around the Island. She also helped to build and maintain these stone walls.
She was an adept maker of dillybags and coolamons, and a respected singer of Kaiadilt songs which invariably tell of the close ties her people had with the landscape of the Island. In 1948 a cyclone destroyed the permanent freshwater source on the island and sixty-three Kaiadilt people, including Gabori, then aged about twenty-four, were moved to a mission on Mornington Island. It was not until the late 1980s that a few Kaiadilt people returned to Bentinck and Gabori was able to make an occasional visit to her homeland.
In the last years of the twentieth century, Gabori was one of the few Kaiadilt people who could speak Kayardild, and in 2005, aged about eighty, she began painting at the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre. Undoubtedly this linguistic isolation was one of the reasons she adopted painting as a way in which to express herself. While the Kaiadilt had no known pictorial tradition, Gabori painted to record and pass on her knowledge of traditional legends and history. Her paintings document in great detail aspects of her homeland landscape from which she and other Kaiadilt had long been exiled.
Gabori's paintings are always about her country on Bentinck Island. They are maps of places invested with ancient tribal memories and personal history. In the Thundi paintings she painted the land, sea and sky, observed from a traditional camp site in bushland in the north of the Island which provided shelter from storms and cyclones. As well as celebrating the natural beauty of Thundi, these paintings marked it as the birthplace of her father and grandfather and their ownership of the land. Similarly the story of Dibirdibi, which documents the tribal memory of the rising of the Gulf waters which cut off Bentinck Island from the mainland, is invested with important personal memories and represents a celebration of her life.
Sally Gabori has also made her mark internationally, with her works being exhibited in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, USA, Korea, the Netherlands and Italy. Sally Gabori's work features in important collections and major institutions in Australia and abroad including the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, New Zealand the Musée du Quai Branly, France and the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, the Netherlands. The Fondation Cartier in Paris will have a major solo show of Sally Gabori's work in October 2021.
We are proud to represent her work in New Zealand, courtesy of Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne and the Estate of Sally Gabori.
Essay by John McPhee.