Portrait of an Artist: Sally Gabori

In Milan, First Nations Australian artist Sally Gabori is celebrated in a major solo retrospective exhibition.

Article by Alexia Petsinis

Nyinyilki-2011-01Nyinyilki, 2011, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 196 × 301 cm, Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, Australia, Purchase, 2016 © The Estate of Sally Gabori. Photo © Simon Strong.

T Australia wishes to advise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that this article contains images and names of deceased Aboriginal people.

Exuberant colour, organic rhythms and a freedom of spirit that radiates from every brush stroke; regardless of where you see one in the world, a painting by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (1924-2015) envelops you in a universal experience of human emotion, drawn from the First Nations Australian artist’s lived experience.

Considered one of Australia‘s most celebrated contemporary artists of the past two decades, a selection of the Kaiadilt woman’s abstract paintings are on display in Italy for the first time in a major solo survey exhibition at Triennale Milano, conceived and curated by Fondation Cartier.

It is difficult to comprehend the emotions Gabori might have experienced in the revelatory moment she first picked up a paintbrush at 81 years of age. The exhibition showcases 30 of Gabori’s expansive paintings (some over six metres long) that enliven one of Triennale Milano’s main exhibition halls, alongside three paintings she produced in collaboration with other Kaiadilt artists, including her daughters. The works offer a spirited journey of discovery for Italian and international viewers; of Gabori’s life, art, and boundless imagination, yes, but also the narratives and truths inherent in world’s oldest living culture.

Frequently referred to as “love letters to Country”, Gabori’s paintings evoke both personal and ancestral stories at once. Her works educate international audiences about the Kaiadilt community’s forced evacuation from Bentinck Island in1948, when Gabori and her family were among the last surviving Kaiadilt residents to be exiled to the Presbyterian mission on Mornington Island. This intervention saw Kaiadilt children separated from their parents, and the community was forbidden to communicate in their native language. These narratives of personal and collective devastation and of a cultural fracturing manifest in the rawness of form and colour in Gabori’s work.

Fondation Cartier's Sally Gabori retrospective. Photography courtesy of Cartier.

“Sally Gabori’s story will be quite foreign to most of her audience, whether in Australia or in Europe,” says First Nations and Head Curator of First Nations Art at National Gallery of Australia, Bruce Johnson McLean. “An 80-year-old woman who lived the entire experience of the Australian colonial frontier, a woman who knew the creation stories of her tiny island home intimately. These things are unfathomable and unknowable to the overwhelming majority of her audience.

“Although Sally’s paintings speak to these histories and stories, they also speak to the places she calls home, and to the family she loved and shared memories with at these places,” continues McLean. “They project themes of love, of loss, of longing, of joy, of memory – things that I hope everyone can relate to. It’s this dichotomy or duality of things known and unknowable, familiar and foreign, universal and personal, which really seems to connect with people no matter where they’re from” he says.

Gabori’s prolific output (she painted over two thousand canvases, often several a day, in her nine years as a practicing artist) indicates a physical and emotional intensity that defined her practice. Painting was her most natural means of self-expression, and one that had seemingly been missing from her life to that point. Gabori didn’t paint for an audience, she painted for herself. This idea is illustrated in the exhibition’s 2009 video footage of Gabori painting Dibirdibi Country at the Mornington Island Art & Craft Centre, the site where she first discovered her beloved artform. The artist sits on the floor at the base of her linen canvas that stretches above her towards the ceiling, applying primary acrylic colours spontaneously and purely according to her own inner rhythm.

Although abstract in appearance with gestural large blocks of colour, Gabori’s paintings are akin to topographical maps of personally significant landmarks on her native Bentinck Island. Associated with people and stories from her personal life and ancestral narratives, these places are represented numerous times throughout her body of work, and include Nyinyilki, a site on the south-eastern coast of the island that is home to a freshwater lagoon, Thundi, an area in the island’s northern tip where Gabori’s father was born, and Dibirdibi, the site most often represented in her large-scale work, the Country of Kaiadilt People’s yuujbant (Dreaming) ancestor, the Rock Cod.

Sally Gabori, Amanda Gabori & Elsie Gabori Pat and Sally’s Country, 2011, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 198 × 305 cm Patricia Roberts, Melbourne, Australia © The Estate of Sally Gabori. Photo © Simon Strong.

“Italy has such a long and proud tradition and culture of art production and exhibition,” notes McLean. “Few Australian artists have held exhibitions in Italy outside of the Venice Biennale, so for Sally Gabori to be exhibited in an important Italian venue like the Triennale Milano marks an extraordinary moment for Sally’s work and legacy, and for First Nations art and artists from Australia more broadly.”

Following a successful opening season in Paris at Fondation Cartier’s museum, the exhibition now comes to Italy as part of the Fondation’s eight-year partnership with Triennale Milano. A world-leading cultural institution for contemporary art and design spanning a range of discourses, Triennale appears to be the ideal location for an ambitious show of this nature. The institution is driven by a mission to broaden global awareness about indigenous cultures and languages. In the case of this exhibition, it explores the significance of Gabori’s art in shaping global cultural legacies and contemporary visual culture. A collaborative project organised in close consultation with the artist’s family and the Kaiadilt community, the exhibition includes a selection of loaned works from Australian galleries such as Queensland Art Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and HOTA (Home of the Arts).

“Milan is definitely the capital in Italy for design and architecture, but contemporary art also has a strong presence with many dedicated institutions,” says director of collections at Fondation Cartier, Grazia Quaroni. “Audiences are international, curious and demanding, and always seeking new discoveries. Thanks to the generosity of all lenders for this exhibition, including the most important museum institutions in Australia, we can continue to extend awareness about such an extraordinary artist like Sally Gabori.”

Fondation Cartier's Sally Gabori retrospective. Photography courtesy of Cartier.

In the context of an ongoing cultural exchange between Australia and Italy, the exhibition nurtures an increasing interest in Australian First People’s art in major Italian cities with a diverse and progressive artistic sensibility. This interest is based on both aesthetic, thematic and cultural intrigue about First People’s Australian art, a genre that continues to evolve in public consciousness through exhibitions of contemporary artists like Gabori, and the inherent truth-telling capacity of their work. While Gabori painted purely for personal expression, her art continues to uplift and educate viewers around the world, constituting a universal language of its own that transcends continents in its ability to capture the full spectrum of the human experience.

“Danda ngijinda dulk, danda ngijinda malaa, danda ngad” (This is my Land, this is my Sea, this is who I am),  Sally Gabori.

Nyinyilki, 2010, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 196 × 300 cm Private collection, Melbourne, Australia © The Estate of Sally Gabori. Photo © Simon Strong.