Sally Gabori

XSTRATA COAL Emerging Indigenous Art Award Catalogue
Queensland Art Gallery
by Diane Moon

Sally Gabori was born, around 1924, into the Kaiadilt people of Bentinck Island - the largest of the South Wellesley group of islands in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. Her tribal name is Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda. Juwarnda means `dolphin', which is her totemic sign, and Mirdidingkingathi means `born at Mirdidingki', in her country on the south side of Bentinck Island. By 1948, after years of resistance and following severe drought and a cyclone, all Kaiadilt people were eventually relocated to the Methodist Mission on Mornington Island.

Until her early twenties Gabori gathered bush foods and fished the abundant waters surrounding Bentinck Island. She used the extensive network of stone fish walls encircling the island and was a recognised custodian of these traps. Despite the trauma of the enforced move to an alien land, Gabori has been able to maintain a largely traditional lifestyle on Mornington Island.
From her early years Gabori developed a strong connection with the myriad sites on Bentinck Island which mark significant events in the Kaiadilt cosmology. She learned to see and experience her tribal lands through these story places and has carried this vision to keep alive a strong emotional attachment to her country. Gabori has also maintained cultural ties through the repetition of traditional Kaiadilt songs, which often express notions of love of absent people and of particular places.
Sally has long been recognised as a dedicated practitioner of traditional crafts, making coolamons (shallow carrying vessels) from plant fibres, and using bark from the beach hibiscus - rolled and twined into string - for netted bags. In April 2005, at the age of 81, through attending a series of workshops at the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre, Gabori started to use paint on canvas to explore abstract representations of the colour, life, pattern, and meaning of her culture.

Although she hasn't inherited a graphic tradition from Kaiadilt culture, her recent reconnection with Bentinck Island through several flying visits on chartered planes has inspired new subjects to paint. Aerial views of the sweeping coastline, the jagged lines of oyster-encrusted stone fish traps, darting schools of fish and sunlit patterns on the water's surface are rendered with confident, vigorous gestures in bright colours, in a late flowering of artistic talent.

As the linguist Dr Nicholas Evans wrote recently:
"This, then, is Sally Gabori's life - from one angle, the life of a shy great-grandmother in a largely unknown community, who barely speaks English and whose language can now be understood by only a handful of people. It is indissolubly linked with her country, her family, her tribe, and their remarkable and dramatic story."