“This painting is about an outside hunting ground of the Southern end of Bentinck Island. Dingkarri is a shallow reef where there is deep water all around. It is a good place to hunt dugong and turtle. Outside Dingkarri is the boundary of our country to the south of Bentinck Island.” — Artist statement, NGA, 2008
Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was a senior Kaiadilt artist known for strikingly bold and colourful paintings depicting her Country in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Gabori was born and raised on Bentinck Island in the South Wellesley Island Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where she lived a cultural life in the small, isolated community. She was skilled in weaving functional items like dilly bags, made with pandanus leaves stained with ochre and used to carry food, like fish, crabs and dugong. Gabori was also an accomplished singer of Kaiadilt songs, an integral part of cultural life that maintains connection to country.
In 1948, when Gabori was 24 years old, the entire Kaiadilt community of 63 people were removed by Christian missionaries to the neighbouring Gunana/Mornington Island which is the land of the Lardil people. Their relocation was caused by environmental disruption wrought by drought and cyclonic flooding. The Kaiadilt community were not welcomed by the Lardil people and were pressured to adopt western names and lifestyles by the missionaries. Despite their separation, the Kaiadilt people maintained a strong connection to their Country. The revered memory of Bentinck Island was Gabori’s main inspiration in her painting practice. Over time, Gabori became a matriarch within her family as a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
In 2005 the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre ran painting workshops for the older members of the Kaiadilt community. Some men in the community had painted on bark and canvas but this was one of the first opportunities for the senior women to paint on canvas. Already in her eighties, Gabori initially came to the centre as a weaver but quickly adopted painting as her primary means of artistic expression. An immediate love of painting triggered a creative outpouring that resulted in her producing nearly one canvas per day. She held her first solo exhibition one year later in Brisbane. Using expressive brushstrokes and a vivid palette, Gabori’s works recalled the landscape and ocean surrounding her home of Bentinck Island, often featuring bright flurries of colour which signify the teeming sea life as seen in the work All the fish. Her paintings also explore the cultural customs of her early life including time spent with her mother and father, fishing with her big brother Bardi (Buddy) and singing with community.
Gabori began painting on smaller canvases before moving towards large-scale works, occasionally produced collaboratively with other Kaiadilt women. Her monumental paintings feature large organic areas of bright colour balanced with interjections of black and white. Paintings such as Outside Dibirdibi and My grandfather’s Country record stories of Kaiadilt Dreaming as well as familial histories. Gabori’s work has been shown in survey shows at the Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra; the Royal Academy of Arts, London and at the 55th Venice Biennale, Palazzo Bembo, Venice in 2013. A retrospective, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori: Dulka Warngiid – Land of All, was held at the Queensland Art Gallery and National Gallery of Victoria in 2016-2017. Gabori died on Mornington Island in 2015. The Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris, France will hold a major solo survey exhibition of Gabori’s work in 2021.
Biography written by Yvette Dal Pozzo in collaboration with NGA curatorial and research staff and edited by Dr Nicola Teffer