If you’re anything like me, you occasionally find yourself wishing you’d started doing what you love earlier in life – be that related to your job, playing sport, having a family, taking up a hobby etc. All that time wasted not doing the stuff we love weighs heavily when you start to realise how quickly life seems to race with every passing year.
In those moments, we’d do well to remind ourselves of the story of the late Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, a senior Kaiadilt woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria who picked up a paintbrush for the first time when she was 81, and proceeded to become one of Australia’s most respected and exalted artists before her death last year. That she came from Bentinck Island, a place with absolutely no painting traditions, whose inhabitants lived so remotely they avoided contact with Europeans until as late as the nineteenth century, makes her story even more remarkable.
Despite being disconnected from painting’s history, Gabori’s first experimentations with paint and brushes were extraordinarily assured. Uninhibited by preconceived notions of what constituted painting, Gabori proved herself to be an instinctive and fearless artist, immediately noteworthy for her bold use of colour and expansive compositions. Appearing initially as vast painterly abstractions, her works carried the stories of the people and landscapes she held dear in a way that forced us to reexamine, and widen, our understanding of Aboriginal Art. Intuitive and multilayered, Gabori’s paintings successfully merged the contemporary abstractionist aesthetic with deeply personal reflections on place and identity from an aboriginal perspective. It is this dynamic combination of two apparently disparate art worlds that informs a new survey of her work at Queensland Art Gallery, Dulka Warngiid – Land of All.
Taken from the Kayardild name for Bentinck Island, Dulka Warngiid – Land of All tracks Gabori’s career from her very first work in 2005 through to her last, and includes major works from QAGOMA’s collection, as well as those drawn from public and private collections nationally. Interspersed throughout the exhibition are Gabori’s personal reflections of love and loss, and her deep connection to her Country at Mirdidingki, as well as the Countries of her father, grandfather, and husband Pat. Amongst the most stunning works in the exhibition are a suite of monochromatic paintings documenting her father’s Country of Thundi, each of which contain only the faintest hint of colour. Seen alongside the megawatt, in-your-face works she is best known for, they radiate restraint and subtle beauty (SIDE NOTE: my gallery date during my visit was a 14-year-old autistic boy who has about as much time for reading didactic panels as I have for people who eat ‘Paleo’. He instinctively picked up on the daubs of pastel colour in the white as representative of schools of fish in sea water, well before I’d finished reading the wall text that confirmed his interpretation of it. Considering Gabori herself barely spoke English herself, it says a great deal about both her innate talent, and art’s ability to communicate when language difficulties limit us).
Central to the gallery space is Gabori’s painting table and brush, positioned under a speaker playing a soundtrack of the artist singing a Kaiadilt song about her brother Makarrkingathi Dingkarringathi Thuwathu Bijarrb (King Alfred). It is a haunting and atmospheric addition to an exhibition that is overwhelming in its beauty, resonance and scope.
Gabori was unusually prolific throughout her short career, completing in excess of 2000 works from 2005 to 2015. At her strongest, she maintained a rigorous regime of one painting a day – no small task when you consider the sheer size of her works, and that her style was to paint wet into wet. Curator Bruce Maclean can’t have had an easy time wrangling that catalogue into a cohesive and comprehensive retrospective of just 50 works, but the result is an exhibition that, for my money, is the best thing QAGOMA’s staged in years. Do see it.