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The Road to Bentinck Island

The Road to Bentinck Island: Sally and Her Sisters – Sally and Her Daughters

Gunana - Anything is Possible!
Graffiti mural on Mornington Island 2013.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born as a Kaiadilt woman on small, flat, Bentinck Island in the south eastern Gulf of Carpentaria circa 1924. The first part of her name comes from the place of her birth on the island and is remembered in painting – My Country/2009, This is the river where I was born on Bentinck Island. I was born under a tree on the banks of the Mirrdidingki River.[1] Place of conception and birth have importance in Aboriginal societies – it’s where your spirit is made flesh. In Arnhem Land artists spoke of ‘where my parents found me’ (where conception took place). They spoke of an unusual sighting or hunting event where an animal or fish allowed itself to be caught.  The event is replayed in a dream by the father. The natural species concerned speaks, telling him of his wife’s pregnancy. Often the child’s totem is this species. Whether this conception or physical birth’s importance is along gender lines is unclear. Mirdidingkingathi’s spirit totem I’m told is ‘white dolphin’. Other paintings depict other family conception-birth sites: Thundi 2012; This is the big river that runs through ‘Thundi’ on Bentinck island, this is where my father was born[2], and, King Alfred’s Country 2006; This is where my brother; ‘King Alfred’ was born[3].

On Bentinck Island, Nalkardarrawuru­ –he who had waterlilies on his head– gave the Kaiadilt water to allow them to live there in return for access to their women as wives. Another story tells of the spirit of Dibirdibi the Cod fish who dispersed segments of his liver that created freshwater springs where they landed.  Mirdidingkingathi lived a traditional Aboriginal ‘seaways’ lifestyle (a diet of fish, shellfish, crabs and dugongs), with no clothes, living on the catch from their rock wall tidal fish traps they maintained, with no contact with the outside world until her mid-twenties. An intense drought and a tidal surge contaminated their water supply making life intolerable there in 1948. Her family was persuaded to move from their home on Bentinck Island, by ‘white’ Presbyterian Christian missionaries, to the nearby ‘mission’ on Mornington Island (Gunana) that year, where they have remained ever since. Although competent weavers using local grass materials from an early age, in 2005 she and her sisters attended a painting workshop conducted to open and encourage their artistic possibilities. Their fresh, new art work, was welcomed, accepted and valued by the art world – they were an instant hit commercially, if cautiously in a critical sense. What follows is a zig-zag, jingle-jangle, walk through  the last ten years of this movement.

In 2005, the same year Sally and her sisters started painting, a world away, African curator Simon Njami in the exhibition catalogue for Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (2005), declared: ‘Africa is a scandal! His meaning was­ that in a western art history sense, the African continent is such a fusion of combinations of various art styles, ideas and forms out of differing colonial national art movements and periods entwined with their own regional histories that it’s difficult to neatly box the reading, line of thought and intent of artists and artwork. And so with the particular genre of aged Aboriginal artists who, in the same year, were newly moved to paint but who cannot enunciate and articulate (in western English at a meta-level) the images they create and are at the forefront of contemporary Aboriginal art painting practice. How do we adequately describe this work and this person?

Late in 2013 I met art collector Pat Corrigan who asked me if I would seriously examine and write about his large collection of paintings of elder artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori. Pat has over seventy of her ‘landscape paintings’ in his collection. He offered to fly me to meet her on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria to begin the project. I left Sydney at 6am one Friday and arrived in Cairns where I met photographer Adam Knight and artist friend Fiona Foley (back-up photographer). By 10am I’d entered another world. We all flew on to Mornington Island (with a brief stop-over at Normanton) and were picked up by Brett Evans, the art advisor. It was hot - something like 40 degrees I think - and hadn't rained in quite a while. A drought has been taking place in northern Queensland for a number of years. It was a time like this that forced the Kaiadilt to leave their Bentinck Island home over 60 years ago.

Brett took us to see the store, our hotel rooms, and to meet Sally briefly. I met her once again the next day just before lunch, after visiting some of her family (daughter Elsie Gabori, a painter, and Sally’s grandchildren) to be sure they were aware of our visit and its purpose. Some might say that my being there on Mornington Island was an ethnographic experience of a kind of white art society of the most brutal kind; the whole timing, setting up of the essay commission, the meeting with Sally, and the players involved and so on.

I can only sing this song to someone who understands.

Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner (Inuit film- 201/2002)Sally and her two sisters (May and Dawn, now both deceased) and fellow artist Paula Paul were born in the 1920s and 1930s respectively, around the time of the opening of Parliament House in Canberra, and as such are true daughters of the new Australian nation with a specific Queensland tropical reference. It was in this time that Australian modernist painter Margaret Preston (1875-1963) really came of age as an artist and, after visiting Cape York, came to the conclusion that Aboriginal art should be adopted as the ‘national art form’, and said as much in a number of articles in Art and Australia in the 1920s[4].  Allegedly she concluded: “there is more than one vision in art. That a picture could have more than eye realism, that there was such a thing as aesthetic feeling, that a picture that is meant to fill a certain space should decorate that space”.

In the 1990s another very famous Aboriginal contemporary female artist had told me how she’d once met the famous French-American woman artist Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (1911-2010); ‘so you’re a photographer eh?’, she disdainfully asked. When first approached concerning Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori and her work, I was eager to go there, but found I was actually a bit afraid of how to present myself properly. I’d worked with the Mornington Island dance group ‘Woomera’ who were all Lardil people, but had never been to the island and was excited on that level. I was more interested however in the appearance of this group of mature-age women painters who were stunning the art world, and the question of their ‘intent’ and the form of their work as a stage in the history of Aboriginal art. The society had a form of painting tradition of mark making and protective coating, using their bodies and ritual objects and utensils, but not of the seemingly (from a non-western view) ‘whimsical’ upper class art practice of the West. 

I’d met Sally Gabori briefly in Canberra and Brisbane at exhibitions before but wanted to see more – a studio visit of sorts.  We went to her paint-splattered place of work (walls, chairs, and work benches all splashed with colour) where she and her sisters had worked, leaving traces of their being behind. We found her own size 10 Micador brush, and were shown the first painting she’d completed; My Country from 2004[5]. In Arnhem Land, across the Gulf of Carpenteria, senior painters held their brushes fully in their hand, close to the fibre brush end and made their strokes away from their bodies across the picture surface. In television footage we see Sally holding her brush high up on the long shaft and ‘distanced’, studiously marking a grid – small roundels in rows across the canvas. Micador art-supply company sells art materials to many schools and institutions across Australia. Adam Knight suggested that the present Micador’s grandfather probably supplied the first paints and art boards for the Papunya painting movement in 1970, and the firm was now inadvertently part of another movement.  

German society has the term ‘Heimatt’ to describe the positive bonding relationship between a being (a human person) and a place; a regional social unit. The space may be an image, a physical place, a smell, a temperature or humidity, the flowering of certain plants, or the appearance of particular fish, or the calling sounds of some birds. Above all it is their belief that it defines the sense of German-ness. It provides a construct of self-identity and self-confidence in examining that identity in a changing world.

Gabori’s joy of painting had its own walking path. Sally’s compositions represented, in a patchwork quilt of colours, in a patchwork quilt of colours, segmented plan views of rock wall tidal fish traps or oysters on said walls or mussel beds that sustained her group. See Dibirdibi Country 2008, as an example of this—This is my husband’s country on Bentinck Island[6]. In most Aboriginal art, places are symbolised by circles, and very sacred places by concentric circles.  Sacred ‘story places’ in Sally’s early work, are designated by roughly wavering, irregular, concentric circles of differing colours. See This painting is about a story place out to sea, you can only get there by boat, 2006[7]. Sally’s other compositions, as with the ones mainly making up the Corrigan collection, are of freely painted large spaces of varying primary colours[8], and beautifully swept colour arch lines indicating rivers and other saltpan and vegetated spaces.  See This is where my brother King Alfred was born on Bentinck Island.[9]And also This is my husband’s country on Bentinck Island. There is a large saltpan that arcs its way across it.[10]

Baluraayaanki manki mankinji/mankinji jananga jirrkurumirdamirda diijuru

From being in someone else’s country in my previous night’s camp in the west, I will sit down in my sea country to the north.

Sally Gabori singing (translated by Nicholas Evans)[11]

How do you reach your life quest and express it? Or even recognise what it is and whether it evolves and expresses itself from such an emotional and spiritual connection mentioned above? An Aboriginal life could be described as a song; in Sally’s case a threnody, a lament for her country, and it follows, in step with a song, as a dance. Where do the images, the painting compositions, come from – how are they constructed? A colleague, John von Sturmer, brought up in conversation the concept of ‘jingle’ a child’s song without words – lines without real meaning to the outside – but with deep meaning and pleasurable to the actor themselves. Adults, of course, also sing to themselves. Dr. Nicholas Evans[12] in commenting on Sally’s previous song, said: ‘All four women are also accomplished singers of traditional Kaiadilt songs, that may be (from a western point of view) appear as a distinctive lullaby-like style, that often expresses longing for absent people or love and homesickness for particular places.’  A jingle obtains its sound, beat or rhythm from someone’s (or animal’s) walk. The ‘jingle’ of keys on your belt or coins in your pocket, shellfish in your bag, the swing of your shell necklace – buckles on a horses harness. It is the sound of your feet striking pebbles on the path or the sound  (squeak) of sand as you walk. A walk of course can be silent, but many people sing as they move to fill that empty acoustic space.  Each jingle is personal, is idiosyncratically tied or formed by your body shape and the swing step as you walk, your particular gait that can be recognised at a distance. It possibly begins pre-birth even, with your mother’s swing step rhythm rocking you in the womb, her heartbeat, and humming and singing herself; a cadence or beat. And there is no more uniquely personal action than the choreography of the painter’s particular posture, pace, and action back and forth, as they apply the paint to the canvas. As curator Amanda Rowell commented in a recent private conversation, it’s the general jingle rhythm of painterliness.

A-  B-C – D
E – F – G
H – I – J – K
L – M – N – O – P
Q – R – S
T – U – V
W – X
Y and Z

Now I know my ABC
Won’t you sing, this song with me?
Universal children’s school jingle.

A jingle is a mnemonic device to trigger and structure memory in both song and painting practice. It describes, and in this case, is derived, from walking around the island, from this place, to that place, experiencing this place and that place. It is embodied in the winds, clouds and seasons that creep in, to transform ‘our’ little ecosphere from this time to that time throughout the year. Sally’s painted land is one of compartments-plots – like Moroccan ‘dye ponds’– stone fish-trap ponds – spaces broken up and divided and ordered into a type of regularity. It becomes a landscape of articulated known, meaningful sites. Places are meaningful due to personal association not magnitude, scale or visual resonance. Sites are temporal – the coming and going of tides, the coming and going of seasons, the coming and going of major climatic events (cyclone, tidal surges, floods, droughts), the coming and going of plants, sea birds (eggs), animals, turtles (eggs), dugongs, and fish – food! There is the coming and going of people (children’s conception-children’s birth, and the passing of the elderly).

In the 1980s Badtjala artist Fiona Foley was recorded in Michael Riley’s Boomalli: Five Koorie Artists documentary wandering the beaches of Thoorgine (Fraser Island) seemingly searching for something. Each bit of flotsam and jetsam found she would then later re-image on paper in a visual art image. She was in fact re-mapping her homeland in distance, charting in topography, naming in taxonomy, in weather, in emotion, and in social memory. In the same way Sally’s paintings could be thought of as a memory walk, and a mapping walk of her physical and social memory of Bentinck Island. Mapping your world is as human an act as anything we do since time began. It is so entwined in our thinking as to be an unconscious automatic emotional recording action.

The colonial task is to break the generational bond.

Cultural heritage-strength operates through three processes; firstly the retention of a society’s collective knowledge and processes, and secondly the transmission of this across generations. Thirdly is the re-interpretive innovation of this knowledge by successive generations in reaction to new circumstances.  I think this move by Sally to transmit her life’s knowledge and painted images against the tidal wave of western hegemony is what gives her work the vitality, life and strength we see in it.

Sally had spent around 57 years away from her homeland before she began to tell her story in painting. The subject of diaspora is not uncommon throughout the western art world. Many contemporary non-European artists are working in exile.  In Melbourne Now, at the NGV (2013), I encountered Malaysian Australian artist Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s (b.1977) work; You Ask Me About That Country. Like Sally, she was–is–exploring perceptions and memories of homeland and diaspora, lament, belonging and identity, and the effect of time on memory. Painted after her return to Malaysia after 25 years, each work is a set of self-portraits.

Hear the pennies dropping,

Listen how they fall

Every one for Jesus

He shall have them all

Dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping

Hear the pennies fall

Every one for Jesus

He shall have them all

Children’s Mission Song, quoted in ‘Schoolroom’, Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser, 2007.

An invisible hand moves us to here and there. One must remember that Aboriginal societies can be as stifling, class conscious, and stratified as any other. Before being taken from their homeland on Bentinck Island to Mornington Island mission, the Kaiadilt lived a life of austerity, strong self-discipline, a ‘Spartan’ life of individual responsibility and action. But, it appeared they were autonomous and free, and happy. On Mornington Island, (from my experience) they were most probably at the bottom of the class structure due to their perceived lack of sophistication with the outside world, and their style of ‘spare’ living. Contradictions should inspire you to think and feel and form your character, not doom you. True Australians don’t complain, they are stoic and just perservere and so did these remarkable Bentick Island human beings.[13]

Polygamy is a structure imposed in some societies as a form of political arrangement (as is monogamy in other societies) but this doesn’t negate the development of particular strong romantic relationships with specific partners. Around the time of the coming of the Makassar boats to the Gulf of Carpentaria shores in the early 1600s, way, way to the west in Agra, the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) built a ‘love memorial’, the Taj Mahal, to his wife Mumtaz Mahal (1592-1631). Although he had other wives, Mumtaz and he had fourteen children together, to almost make the others appear irrelevant. Well, there are love stories everywhere and here also. Sally and her husband Pat[14] (who had three other wives) had eleven children together and their relationship survived many disasters they’d encountered in their life together, the severe drought on Bentick Island, and the forced movement to the ‘refugee camp’ at the Christian mission on Mornington Island in 1948.

In this diasporic camp on Mornington Island, Sally’s move to painting was about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words but that makes the heart ache; the longing for your country. There are places inside that can’t be touched – they survive all the buffeting of life – the memory of her island home, a childhood recalled.

Two Federal Court of Australia decisions in 2004 and 2010  determined that Native Title rights existed over waters in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The ruling affected four groups: the Lardil, the Kaiadilt, the Yangkal and the Gangalidda people. Their Native Title claim related to lands and waters in areas of the sea adjacent to the Wellesley Islands including Bentinck Island.

Australian photographer, Juno Gemes, was attending a Carpentaria Gulf Festival in 2005 on Mornington Island, and met the Kaiadilt people then living there. She took a portrait of Sally painting and noted her confidence: ‘No hesitation in making the first strokes on the canvas’(Gemes). She also recounted that Sally described the Native Title decisions as being a major point of inspiration to paint, given the opportunity of the painting workshop of Wooloongaba Gallery (commercial) curator Simon Turner.

My meetings with Sally could possibly have gone better as we barely exchanged two words, but what was immediately evident was her character. I was struck by the way her presence lit the room like a small low lamp burning in the corner. She studied me intently with her eyes and observed where I was looking. She appeared irritated by the photographs being taken.  She seemed open and interested but not hostile to me trying to start a conversation. She’d noticed my iPhone’s earphones dangling from my shirt pocket, and with complete confidence, without a word, just reached over to pull the phone out of my pocket to see what it was, and then dropped it into my hands before the conversation collapsed again in a lament for her husband (Pat, the quail, dec. 2007).

In the American Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5  (the psychiatrists and psychologists’ bible) is the suggestion if people are still in sorrow two weeks after experiencing trauma they should be medicated. For Aboriginal people an intense expression of grief by relatives and friends, is given upon death, followed by a number of ritual stages of leaving sorrow and trauma that may take years. There may be the closing of tracts of country, banning the hunting of relevant species, and a taboo on the use of the name of the deceased for up to four generations. There’s also the serious trauma of being removed from ‘country’ for instance.

Statistics and figures surely are not enough in diagnosing depression (mental disease) as against plain understandable human sorrow. Surely it’s not a sickness to love?

Of course, in European society people also don various different clothes and perform various rituals, wear black and make a number of gestures to the dead, both public and private. (Queen Victoria seemed to live the rest of her life in mourning after the death of her husband). And in 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross posited that western individuals who have met death or other traumas feel five emotional states in sequence; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. More importantly in 1995 Quandamooka playwright Wesley Enoch and actor Deborah Mailman[15] wrote and performed The Seven Stages of Grieving. The phases are: the Dreaming, invasion, genocide, protection, assimilation, self-determination and reconciliation.

It’s said colloquially that people don’t really change but that their attributes stand more revealed with time. Around the time of Sally’s first exhibition in Brisbane in 2005 I had moved to Japan as a visiting Research Professor. Here I was told that in Japanese society at that time, people described other people as having a ‘moon face’ or a ‘soy face’ – a ‘moon’ face was a full beaming happy open face, as against a ‘soy’ face, a ‘leaner, deep character’ face[16]. When I first saw Sally in Canberra, she cheerfully beamed up from her wheel chair seating. I’d been warned in my 2013 visit that she’d been ill but on greeting her now, her ‘soy’ face – strong and handsome with deep, character – seriously studied me as she sat casually, glamorously relaxed in the old persons, home on Mornington Island.  

On the second day of our visit to Sally on Mornington Island, Fiona Foley was taken out on a fishing trip ‘across the Appel Channel’ near the shoreline of the next island (Denham Island). They caught five barramundi but a curious thing happened. Fiona had hooked another seemingly larger fish that pulled strongly on her line but a shark visibly hovered very close and when she brought her catch to the surface, only the front half remained; the shark’s leftover. ‘There’s still good meat on that’, was the comment as the fish was landed. We actually enjoyed the filleted meat for lunch later.

What is that?” (Julia examining a small piece of coral in a glass dome.)

I don’t know, a little chunk of history that they’ve forgotten to alter, a message from a hundred years ago.” (Winston)

1984, the film version (1984).

A friend warned me that history is what is told and not what actually happened. So what is the value of Sally’s paintings and the ‘school’ she unknowingly started?  An orange butterfly lands on my keyboard momentarily as I’m writing this account in the southern highlands of NSW. Why does an orange butterfly seemingly have the divine right to be called ‘Monarch’? An artist friend asked why Sally was chosen from among her sisters who’d also attended the same painting workshop and been introduced to paint, brushes and canvas around the same time. Why was she taken up as ‘hot property’ by the art world (and possibly, the real question; Why not me? I thought?)?  The Queen is dead; long live the Queen!  Provocative Brisbane based artist Richard Bell had created an ongoing series named ‘Desperately seeking Emily’ in reaction to what he thought of the rapacious art world’s exploiting of Emily Kngwarreye’s legacy after her death. The art market – the Top 40 – is an unpredictable entity and process. Artists of very varying talents can be popular and achieve fame or in some cases survive on their personalities more than their talent. This most definitely wasn’t the case here.

The implication was of course art dealers maneuvering to create the next star to exploit. Some artists are better than others, of course, and I think that the art that lasts speaks not only to the time of its creation but timelessly to the heart of human nature. Some buyers may be overcome by the hype of the market place of course – a work by the great painter. We could just focus on the hype and the heat, but this is a story (an Australian human story – a Queensland story) about someone’s really remarkable life and their feelings in the special, difficult - to - translate emotional space that they travelled in. Mirdidingkingathi lived  in a closed social space without any western technology and, completely off the land until her mid twenties but lived long enough to travel by jet plane to southern cities and when she returned to her homeland for the first time it was in a small chartered aircraft. A different view of the world exists here. Marshal McLuhan talked of how in pre-writing times in human history, people lived in an aural sensory sphere where you ‘read’ or more felt your physical and social environment from all points of the compass and not just what you saw in front of you. Seeing Sally’s paintings and meeting her, I wanted to remain there with her to speak more to her. She reminded me of relatives of mine, and how the society generally dealt with them, dismissed them.

People in the art world talk of a visual emotional response to the image in a painting but usually demote this response in deference to the ‘intellectual’ as a more serious reaction to the image. How does one see or measure emotion? However on the other hand recording or expressing emotion or an idea of the senses; a poetics, has always been highly valued.

What is normal consciousness? Different times and experiences open new ways of sensing and seeing life and art. Some years ago I had a serious illness and in my altered state observed every visitor to my hospital bedside as having a kind of aura or glow around them. One friend suggested they were possibly unconsciously exposing – and expressing their earnest love and concern in a unseen, unaware, spiritual sense.

We live in ‘clock’ time – measured in minutes and seconds as the smallest reading of time. The human brain however works in milliseconds, in thousandths of seconds - outside of normal consciousness. When I had recovered enough to move about I visited friends and saw them in city cafes. Although my eyesight hadn’t recovered completely I did observe an interesting action. As I approached people (friends or unknown) they gave an extremely small almost imperceptible start as they noticed me coming near. A gentle ‘ripple’ of sorts, a shiver, occurred as I moved through crowds that appeared completely unnoticed by anyone else.

Once upon a time when books had just been invented and were still rare, a reader would read out loud to a gathered audience of listeners (similar to groups watching the first television screens in the twentieth century through the store window). It’s said that many people still speak the words they are reading but unconsciously in soft whispering sounds unable to be heard by most other people. Is it Sally’s whispers we hear as she ‘reads’ her life’s landscapes?

Artists and art writers sometimes talk of painting compositions in physical and emotional terms; as smudges, scrapes, and scars on the landscape – the ‘scar’ in the sea grass left by grazing dugongs, scars on the artist. Is it just fading eyesight, lack of strength in holding the brush that forces the artist to be less detailed, less directly figurative? In contemporary China there is a genre of cultural expression (literature, poetry, and theatre) called ‘Scar’ from post Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), revisiting the sometimes brutal debates, debunking and pain of that revolutionary period. It’s also called the ‘literature of the wounded’. A scar could be thought of as a device to remind, to remember.

Places can be good or bad, comfortable or inhospitable, depressing or dynamic, according to the time in history. There is an irony or consonance in Sally Gabori’s artwork being in Venice in 2014. Her country, the Wellesly Islands, is in many ways like pre-Renaissance Venice, a set of small inhospitable islands in a swampy inlet – the most uncomfortable place in earth, one might think (118 small islands in the mouth of the Po and Piave Rivers in the case of Venice and around a dozen islands in the Wellesly Islands including Bentinck Island). Venetian fishermen, who were ‘lagoon dwellers’ as the Romans described them, were refugees from the neighbouring mainland. The difference most marked is that there came a time when Venice began to look outwards whereas the Kaiadilt remained focused on themselves. They, of course, had no reason to do otherwise.

The Bentinck lived in a free space where capital and wealth existed not so much in physical objects or money but in the knowledge and wits in the minds and human social relationships cultivated and maintained by people in their society.

In the 2013 Melbourne Now exhibition on Tomislav Nikolic’s (b.1970) work – Enter this sublime corrosion (2013) – he says of colour: ‘I am determined to work with colour as the focus of my painting . . . not so as to control it or illustrate it but to allow each painting to express a chromatic potential. Using colour as I do it becomes apparent that pigments accrue a certain density and luminosity with time and layering. When set against . . . each other, colours alter in both expected and unexpected ways.’

A gallery in its base meaning is a longer room (space) separating two other rooms (spaces). We are in the gallery of public life for a period of time travelling from this space to that space. Does ‘colour’ have meaning other than just differentiating this space from that space?

In high school I learned that some western artists use colours to express a feeling and to draw out an emotion from the viewer. The idea was to round out the experience of that place, object or person beyond realistic representation. However colour associations aren’t universal across cultures and times in history.

Historically, Aboriginal artists used earth tones from ochre mineral pigments in pre European contact times, but now there are uses and preferences for bright, rich primary colours straight from the tube or bottle.

There is of course what is called the ‘Aboriginal palette’: four colours; black, white, red and yellow but no blue or green although some of the most important creative totemic beings (birds, fish, animal or plants, or the sky and sea) contain these hues. In fact a linguist told me that there has never been a word for blue in any Aboriginal language. Colleague John von Sturmer has privately speculated that those Aboriginal words denote not the light wave-length creating the colour seen by our eyes but the mineral material itself (often a residual extrusion from a sacred creative being).  In a spiritual sense using a particular ochre mineral bed left at a specific place by a creative spirit has, especially in application to our bodies, has an immeasurable power. It is an example of ‘haptic specificity’ in action. Painting the body with ochre or clay creates an emotional response from the person painted and an emotional relationship between painter and painted - on. It can also create an emotional relationship between the painted person and the site where the ochre-clay was extracted from – and the creative spirit who deposited the material there. In a variation of this, the ‘down-kapok’ material used for the Warlpiri ground painting in the 1989 Magicians de le terre exhibition was ‘sanctified’ in the installing performance; it had to be returned to the artists of Yuendumu when the exhibition ended.

Colleague and artist Ian Hobbs in conversation suggested that ochre, in fact, may be the most vibrant colours encountered in a natural environment, and so when moving to acrylic paints these artists would choose the most extremely vibrant hues from the spectrum offered.  The western palette is of three colours; blue, red, yellow, and mixtures of these, plus of course black (an absence of colour) and white (a mix of all colours).  And if we talk of mapping there is the algebraic concept of the four-colour map of the world, wherein, using only four colours so arranged, that no country appears next to another country with the same colour.

“I found I could say things with color and shapes I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

Georgia O’Keefe, (1887-1986), American painter.

Sally used a whole spectrum of tones in the paintings in this collection; black, white, ‘grapefruit red’, pink, orange, yellow, ‘plum’, purple, and blue.

Generally from the 1970s as the Central Australian art centres were introduced to canvas and acrylic paints they moved away from the ‘Aboriginal’ palette to more, what can be described as even ‘lurid’, startlingly bright colours of the western palette – shocking pinks, electric blues, dramatic orange, creamy whites, and ‘banana ripe’ yellows. The artists tended to tone down their pigments (blood reds, rich greens) after the initial period of experimentation with the new materials, but the new centres, and fresher emerging artists could easily be spotted within group exhibitions of the time by their use of these colours.

Very early in his painting career, at the beginning of the Papunya painting movement north west of Alice Springs, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri took to variegated vegetation landscapes as background – a type of realism plan view looking down through clouds partially obscuring our view – varying with colour sections in the painting approximating the actual vegetation in the landscape. He overlaid and interweaved the religious schematic dreaming song-line on a synesthetic image of the same land.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator asks the central colonial encounter question upon hearing African singing: but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend. And why not?’

Are some aesthetics ever universally enjoyed? Tangently, Akira Tatehata, the Director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka commented on the seemingly modernist ‘abstract’ paintings of the late Emily Kngwarreye: How did she appear to know about this ‘profound’ western art movement? How was she able to express herself in such a sophisticated manner without ever reading a western art book?[17]

Over the whole encounter between Aboriginal and European society, a debate has ensued as how to read, describe, and name Aboriginal art. Is it cubist, is it surrealist, or is it abstract? In this they ignored the most important question – is it something they enjoyed (by both artists and critics)?

Abstraction is such a broad term. Non-representational and non-figurative – can we apply these terms to persons from other cultures, and can we truly ever be ‘objective’ in this venture? In the first issue of Sturgeon art magazine I wrote that there were five phases in the recognition of Aboriginal art but that with each movement of awareness a struggle to define and fit this art form into the history of western art took place. Is it art at all, is it abstract, is it surrealist, is it cubist, and so on. Can we really listen to or consciously understand what an Aboriginal artist thinks across the historical and cultural divide and when they are based in societies who have no word for art? Do ‘they’ (the other) understand complex western art-speak or is it a case that white academics will tell you what the reality is; what the ‘big picture’ is?

When the National Museum of Australia was built in Canberra in the 1990s much was made of the abstract concept ‘X’ in the architecture to entwine the institution’s and the nation’s life with ideas, concepts and deeper thinking. Or, is it, as a friend joked, just that they (the architects) can’t sign their name –they can only make their mark ‘X’?

The curators of the 2013 Old Masters, bark painting exhibition at the National Museum of Australia saw abstraction in bark paintings as those landscapes represented as geometric patterns with no figures.

Some western writers assume it’s a case of commonsense; i.e. surely we’re all the same, we’re all human - they’re just like us, they think like us, except they have a tan? Nothing could be further from the truth. They practically live in another dimension. Do the artists just provide subject or site titles to their art works in response to western demands or requests for such naming? Can an Aboriginal artwork ever be ‘untitled’?  I don’t think so. Or at the other pole: the artists and their art are enigmatic genius; they have or are loaded with ‘other cultural unexplainable ‘secret’ profound spiritual metaphysical meanings and symbols. The truth is somewhere in between, I guess.

They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my reality.”

Frida Kahlo (1907–54), Mexican painter.

In western thought, only intelligent societies have abstract thinking and ‘the primitive’ are to some extent always thought of as not having abstract thought. They have ‘dreamtime’, and one would think, therefore must dream so can their paintings be called ‘surrealist’?

The western thinking being that because Aboriginal artists paint abstractly cannot their society then ‘think’ abstractly? Cold western abstraction in painting, I think, is about colour, non-representational and non-form or non-perspectival composition in the image. Following this line of thought, in Sally’s case, although the ‘hand’ is free and expressive, I think it holds a form of representation of place and time, landforms, people, seasons and times in memory. 

“To create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

I wasn’t able to actually land on Bentinck Island in 2013 due to a family death there but previously I had lived on another, flat as a pancake, wedge-shaped island, hundreds of kilometres to the west – Milingimbi, off the central Arnhem Land coast, off the mouth of the Glyde River. Like Bentinck Island it was barely above sea level and similarly it was about one third mangroves, one third bush, and one third saltpans. It also had a stonewall fish trap on the single beach. Sally’s painting of Bentinck Island run to these environmental designations – ‘This is the saltpan country where I was born on. Bentinck Island’[18] Mangroves, both freshwater and saltwater, ring the waterline: ‘This is mangrove swamp on my husband’s country on Bentinck Island’[19]. And; ‘This is bush country on my husband’s country Bentinck Island’.[20]And in this ‘titling’ she speaks of each place in social terms and relationships rather than as her younger ‘sister’ Paula Paul does in talking about particular natural species; oysters – mussels, and shells specifically.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      ­­

“The weather dominates on Mornington Island”

Louise Martin-Chew [21]

On Milingimbi, due to its flatness two things were dominant: the sky and the sea. It was about time and space. We noted the shape and the form of the sky bowl over our heads every day – there was a morning when two parallel silent jet trails split the clear dry season sky from horizon to horizon. Another day we woke to see exactly half the sky dome fully covered in cloud and the other half perfectly clear and blue. Clouds in Greek history are gods of thinking. As the monsoon rain season approached in northern Australia, simply huge, tall storm clouds rose up high in the sky and would roll and slowly tumble towards us changing form and colour as they came on, like a living entity. The sea would turn electric turquoise and the sky into a deep, ‘Swan Ink’ blue.

There is a set of clans living there, joined in totem by a climatic spiritual force in the form of a line of clouds. These storm clouds are the first rains of the wet season and created by the breath of a dog spirit, the breath of migrating turtles, the blowing of surfacing whales, and the hiss of a Rainbow Serpent. The clouds are represented in design of a line of equilateral and isosceles triangles, variously filled in; black for clouds full with rain, cross-hatched for rain and lightning, and red and yellow triangles for sun struck clouds after the rain has finished. The north-east winds that bring these clouds also brought Macassar trepangers from the Celebes to Australia’s northern shores (including Bentick Island) from the early 1600s.

The clouds of the Gulf of Carpenteria are just as alive, moved by spiritual forces, and spectacular to such a magnitude as to be an international tourist attraction (the Morning Glory formation, for instance). 

Ivan Sen’s recent cinema piece Mystery Road (2013) records detective Jay Swan’s (Aaron Pederson) search from an above ‘plan’ perspective. We see his car going through the streets from a position above them, then, and characters recognizable as real persons, but silhouetted horizontally against the setting evening sun and horizon line. Real-time and symbolically multi-perspectival views operating at the same time - flowing back and forth in reading.

We could think of Sally’s compositions of saltpans, mud flats, fish traps, reef rings, and areas of forest with pathways tracking through and between them. At the same time we see large clouds standing thousands of feet in the air, clouds dark with rain, and those clouds turned red by the sun shining on them. Sally’s compositions from her first painting map out an aerial view of Bentinck Island’s stone wall fish traps – coloured spaces like dye ponds, and ‘dribbling pathways and large open salt pans bordered by mangroves and savannah forest. At the same time storm clouds loom high in the sky in big colour spaces or fields – a being – a creative spirit.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         white When I met Sally, she appeared to me as a strong individual personality, a person, a human being of considerable agency, and not just a pawn of ethnographers or of the contemporary art world. Every encounter in art has a mutual responsibility: why should she see me? What was her relationship to me and vice versa? She lamented her husband Pat who died some years ago (2007). Dibirdibi Country, This is my husband’s country on Bentinck Island[22]over one third of her paintings of this collection from 2007 on, bear a form of this title, a homage to Sally’s dead husband. I once wrote of another older woman artist from the desert, Judy Watson Ngapangardi, whose children had died before her. I thought that in her paintings of spiritual ‘story’ places, she was in a way conversing with her dead children, and in painting those places, enriched that spiritual space and made it more comfortable for them – akin to still stroking them and grooming them, and caring for them[23].

An Aboriginal person and certainly a woman rarely dances alone but usually in concert with her colleagues and relatives. On the last morning of our few days on Mornington Island we were able to witness the liveliness and gleam of Sally’s daughters, Madge, Elsie, Dorothy, Amanda, and Helena, at their painting task in the workshop where she started. Her spirit moved among them as they bent and worked in lively collaborative discursive discourse yet each alone in their various visions and applications on the canvas.  Her legacy was certainly alive here.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born circa 1924 but didn’t take up painting until 2005 around the age of eighty. As one becomes older, every now and then, one feels compelled to put a broom through life’s memories and events – to put your legacy in order. All these sites, ‘story places’ and people have place and value in your life; they’re arranged as you are moved without too much pondering; but just the weight of emotion in response to their re-appearance; as you travel through these memories – as child, as teenager, as lover, as parent, and as grandparent.  If there may be delusions to wisdom one should expect a tolerance to error, and an awareness of the sincerity of expression.

“You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields. That which is you dwells above the mountain, and roves with the wind. It is not a thing that crawls into the sun for warmth, or digs holes into darkness for safety, But a thing free, a spirit that envelopes the earth and moves in the ether.”

The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran[24]

© Djon Mundine


[1] My Country 2009

This is the river where I was born on Bentinck Island. I was born under a tree on the banks of the Mirrdidingki River.

[2] Thundi/2012

This is the big river that runs through ‘Thundi’ on Bentinck Island. And this is where my father was born.

[3] King Alfred’s Country 2006

This is where my brother ‘King Alfred’ was born.

[4] Preston, The Indigenous Art of Australia, Art in Australia, 3rd Series, no.11, March 1925. Preston had previously written on the use of Aboriginal art in Home (Home vol.5, no.4, 1 Dec. 1924, pp.30-31, 1924).And Preston, “Forming the queue for Queensland: an artist’s appreciation of a six-week tour among the grandeurs of the northern state”, Home, Dec, 1924.

[5] My Country, 2004, synthetic polymer paint on canvas 60cm x 30cm Collection, Mornington Island Arts.

[6] Dibirdibi Country/2008: This is my husband’s country on Bentinck Island.

[7] Outside story place, 2006 and Outside story place at my country, 2006.

[8] Dibididibi Country, 2008, and My Country, 2009

Dibirdibi Country, 2011

[9] King Alfred’s Country, 2008

[10] Dibirdibi Country, 2008

[11] Page 57

[12] Pages 56, 57

[13] How to be Normal in Australia, A Practical Guide to the Unchartered Territory of Antipodean Relationships, Secrets of Normal Australians revealed. Tip-toe through the minefields. Discover the secret of lasting happiness down under. Robert Treborlang, illustrations by Mark Knight, Major Mitchell Press, Potts Point, 1987.

[14] Kabaratjingati – Pat Boltoko/quail totem b.1922 circa- d.2007

[15] Indigenous Australian (Bidjara) and Māori (Ngati Porou and Te Arawa) heritage.

[16] I’m told that the terms ‘soy’ and ‘soy sauce’ are now used for these descriptions.

[17] “The impossible modernist: an ‘outsider’ view”, Paper presented by Professor Akira Tatehata, National Museum of Art, Osaka 
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22-23 August 2008

[18] Dibirdibi Country /2009: This is the saltpa country where I was born on Bentick Island

[19] Dibirdibi Country: This is mangrove swamp on my husband’s country on Bentinck Island

[20]  Dibirdibi Country /2011: This is bush country on my husband’s country Bentinck Island.

[21] The weather dominates on Mornington Island, Louise Martin-Chew, began her essay, p.32, A contemporary art movement develops, The Heart of Everything, the art and artists of Mornington and Bentinck Islands. McCulloch and McCulloch Australian Art Books,  Fitzroy, 2008

[22] Dibirdibi Country: This is my husband’s country on Bentinck Island

[23] “A Fortunate Life, Judy Watson Napangardi”,  catalogue essay for Lismore Regional Gallery, June 2008

[24] Kahlil Gibran The Prophet, , Modern Classics, Penguin Books, first published in 1923, reprinted 2002, p.102.

 

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Djon Mundine