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Sally Gabori My Country

Sally Gabori My Country

My Country by Sally Gabori

(Courtesy of Nicolas Evans, The Australian March 24, 2015)

We cannot be exactly sure of Sally Gabori’s age. She was born at Bentinck Island around 1924 — her tribal name, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, means “dolphin born at Mirdidingki” — and she grew to womanhood at a time when her people, the Kaiadilt, still lived a traditional life, uninfluenced by the encroachment of Europeans.

Until the age of about 20, she had practically no contact with non-Kaiadilt people, and lived from fishing, gathering shellfish and vegetable foods, and maintaining the stone fish walls around the shores of Bentinck Island.

When missionaries moved the Kaiadilt to Mornington Island in the 1940s, she was too old to go to school, and thus did not directly suffer the ridiculing of her language and culture that tormented those only a few years younger than her.

Her English was basic, and she never learned to read and write. Her whole life was oriented to the Kaiadilt people’s ancient traditions and, even after their removal to Mornington Island, she kept up a largely traditional life: fishing and gathering bush foods, remaining with her family and the community. In the Kayardild language of Bentinck Island, the word miburlda, or eye, forms the root of miburiji, “in (one’s) far eye”. In the intense conversations in which the Kaiadilt held to their links to their real country, Bentinck Island could be seen and conjured only in the remote eye of exiled memory.

Gabori did not hold a paintbrush until she was in her 80s. In 2005, Mornington Arts Centre co-ordinator Brett Evans made appropriate materials available to her and encouraged her to try painting. Other Kaiadilt women of similar age followed suit, each developing their own distinctive style.

Brisbane art dealer Simon Turner, of Woolloongabba Art Gallery, was the first to notice her talent and show her work commercially, followed by Beverly Knight of Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, leading to a string of exhibitions and awards in the years that followed.

What makes her work so intriguing is the way it represents a culture of seeing, more than a culture of painting. Late in her life, she adopted a distinctive and abstract artistic language to show us how the Kaiadilt see their world. A Singapore show she presented with the other Kaiadilt women painters was appositely titled Ngalda marraaju wuuju dulku kilwanmaruthu: “We will show our country to you all.”

From the start her work was highly abstract and not necessarily recognisable as “Aboriginal art” by its palette, iconography or structure.

Her 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, Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, The Netherlands. She has held numerous solo exhibitions and group exhibitions with other Bentinck and Mornington Island artists.

In his moving and pointed speech at her funeral, another Kaiadilt elder, Roger Kelly, reminded the survivors of the irreplaceable link to the past that had been lost with her death. Just a handful of old Kaiadilt people still speak their traditional language, Kayardild, and few can read the country and know its intricacies in the way Gabori could.

But he also drew attention to what will remain after her death: a unique record of a particular way of seeing the world, through the “far eyes” of someone who could penetrate to the angles of light off the sea, the signs a hunter must look for, and chunky bright blocks of colour in swamps and saltpans.

Her vision will survive not just in the many canvases in private collections and public galleries here and overseas but also, in blown-up form, at two public sites in Queensland: the Banco Court of Brisbane Supreme Court and, very soon, at Brisbane International Airport, with interpretative notes in Kayardild, English and Chinese.

With the same generosity of spirit with which Gabori nurtured so many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her large extended family, her works will nurture the way those looking at this land see its unique light, pattern and ­texture.

The paintings that this remarkable nonagenarian poured out in her last decade remind us that the real business of art is seeing, something she had practised across a lifetime stretching back to an uncontested Kaiadilt world.

Her style is so direct that one can conclude she spent her whole life preparing exactly what she wanted to show us.

My Country is an abstract work, acrylic on canvas acquired by the University of Canberra on 1st June 2011. It is archetypal of Gabori’s work with bold blocks of colour representing aspects of the land. This is the only work representing Sally Gabori in the University’s collection.