A trailblazing Paris show for indigenous Australian artist Sally Gabori

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The Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art in Paris has opened its doors to the captivating universe of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, an indigenous Australian artist who began painting at the age of 80. A pioneer until her death in 2015, she was able to capture the spirit of her Kaiadilt people and her homeland through magnificently colourful works.

The coastal landscape of far-north Queensland, Australia is like nowhere on earth. In fact, some have described it as lunar, due to its vast expanses of saltpans, rocky outcrops and a searing white sunlight.

Overhead, the ever-changing cloud formations float across multiple shades of blues and greens in the sea where turtles and tropical fish frolic. The estuaries, mangroves and reefs cover hundreds of kilometres. It’s rugged, remote and magnetic – the perfect backdrop for a painter.

It was here, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, that the artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born around 1924 on a little speck of land known as Bentinck Island.

This dramatic landscape is at the heart of a major solo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier gallery until 6 November, the first of its kind for the artist outside Australia.

'This is who I am'

Growing up as an indigenous Kaiadilt woman, Gabori lived off the fish she caught in the sea. She spoke the Kayardilt language, one of the last people of her small insular community to do so.

“This is my land, this is my sea, this is who I am. Danda ngijinda dulk, danda ngijinda malaa, danda ngad,” she was fond of saying.

Her full name is linked to her place of birth – Mirdidingki, a small creek located in the south of the island, combined with her totemic ancestor name Juwarnda, or dolphin.

To a casual observer, Sally Gabori’s work would be described as abstract art. But her paintings are in fact love letters without words, a visual yearning for a place she was exiled from as a young adult and went back to intermittently as an older woman.

Sally Gabori began painting at the age of 80, in 2005. She first held a brush at the Gununa art centre, surrounded by men painting their ochre designs. They were of the Lardil people who lived on neighbouring Mornington Island where she was in a nursing home. She didn’t speak the same language as them but that didn’t stop her remembering her own.

“She translated her memory, her visual memory of what she saw and what she experienced into colour, working with an explosive energy. She invented her own language,” Judith Ryan AM, Senior Curator for Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne told RFI.

A new language

It was this rainbow-tinted alphabet that helped Gabori express the knowledge she had stored up of her native country. Like a topographer, she began mapping out her memories, one after the other.

Thundi, Makarrki, Dibirdibi, Nyinyilki – the names of places and people dear to the artist are summed up in the recurring motifs of the sea, the sky, clouds, and the stone walls built to catch fish, all reminders of a time spent living in harmony with the land, a lifestyle completely untainted by the outside world.

Sally Gabori's exile began in 1948, after a cyclone destroyed Bentinck’s access to fresh drinking water. Gabori and her community were moved to Mornington Island, where Christian missionaries had set up an outpost.

What was intended to be a short stay ended up lasting more than 40 years. This dark chapter of history saw the Kaiadilt children separated from their families and brought up speaking English rather than their tribal languages.

Thanks to progressive legislative victories involving land rights in the 1990s, the Kaiadilt were able to reclaim access to their ancestral lands. Gabori did manage to come back intermittently with her husband and some of her family.

“Paint and colour liberated her,” Judith Ryan says, explaining that despite the upheavals Gabori experienced, it did not cut her off from what was dear to her. Instead, the isolation became a trigger to express everything that had been stored up “in her heart and mind”.

For ten years, Sally Gabori painted with complete abandon – giving herself over to the physical sensation of endless small brush strokes, filling canvas after canvas, producing some 2,000 works.

Hidden talents

Able to paint twice a day for three hours at a time, Gabori was a force of nature. Put a paintbrush in her hand and off she went, often humming traditional songs as she worked. Some of these songs can be heard on the special website set up by Fondation Cartier and the artist's family.

Within six months of starting to paint, she caught the eye of curators from the Woolloongabba Art Gallery in Brisbane who put on a solo show. With the proceeds, she organised a trip back to visit Bentinck Island.

“It was like watching the transformation between Clark Kent and Superman,” Nicolas Evans, anthropologist and linguist told RFI. The Australian researcher spent time with Sally Gabori’s community and published the first Kaiadilt dictionary in 1993.

He admits he had no inkling then of her hidden talents as a painter. She was first and foremost a talented fisherwoman, he says, skilled at making woven articles such as dilly bags and baskets, and actively involved with raising her many children.

The artist’s rebellious, mischievous personality and the fact that there was no existing art model related to her people allowed her total freedom of expression, Ryan adds.

Breaking down barriers

“She defies precedent, has transformed stereotypes,” Ryan says, adding that the Kaiadilt people did not have any established painting tradition or iconography and did not practice body painting or use symbols.

Unlike other indigenous artists of her generation, Gabori sat or stood facing an upright canvas, as opposed to one laid out on the ground.

It is precisely the collision between the world of contemporary, abstract art and one woman’s unique vision that piqued the curiosity of the Fondation Cartier, explains chief curator Juliette Lecorne.

The exhibition sprung from the desire to break down the barriers between the two worlds and “not let contemporary art be limited by what we think it should be,” she says.

To this end, apart from one panel with a map showing Sally’s origins, “the exhibition is free from clutter, free from ethnographical labels,” Judith Ryan points out, allowing the viewer to see the works freely as art in their own right.

New narratives

“They offer an alternative to the narratives imposed on us by history,” adds Bruce Johnson McLean, a specialist in indigenous art and assistant director of First Nations at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

As a descendant of indigenous groups from northern Queensland himself, he described how moving it is to see a woman like Sally Gabori honoured in Paris, taking her stories across the globe, surpassing people’s expectations of what aboriginal art should be and say.

“It transcends the expectations of that story and delivers something of beauty to the world at the end of this story that is patently unbeautiful,” he told RFI, referring to the colonial history and assimilation policies with regards to indigenous people.

“The transformations of these narratives are so important. It’s a new language, a love language”.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori is on until 6 November at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris.

A special online immersive project has been established in partnership with Sally Gabori’s family and the Kaiadilt community.

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