Aboriginal artistic creativity is ageless, Salli GABORI.
Aboriginal artistic creativity is ageless, Salli GABORI.

Aboriginal artistic creativity is ageless, Salli GABORI.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born around 1924 on Bentinck Island in northern Australia. She belongs to the Kaiadilt people. She had to leave her native island after a cyclone in 1948, and has never been able to return.


Sally Gabori is a contemporary Aboriginal artist who has produced a profoundly original and luminous body of work. She began painting in 2005 at the age of 80.

She is now considered one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists.


Her creativity knows no bounds, and she imbues us with the lyrical horizon she has retained from the island of Mornington where she grew up. Combining shimmering colours, almost random shapes and variations in format, Sally Gabori draws on her roots in the Gulf of Carpentaria to nourish her canvases with infinite variations of light, symbols of her native land.

If some are convinced that a lifetime devoted to painting is necessary to reach the pinnacle of one’s art, here is a visual artist who joyfully proves the contrary. Her flat tints of colour, applied to bright canvases bursting with melancholy, might suggest a long-standing practice, at the peak of her innate vocation. Yet it wasn’t until the day after her 80th birthday that Sally Gabori picked up a paintbrush for the first time, never to put it down again until her death in 2015.


In 2022, his works were exhibited for the first time at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. This exhibition is a true journey to the heart of Bentinck Island. Each work represents a unique place that evokes a member of the kaiadilt community or the natural beauty of the island. These include Thundi in the north, Nyinyilki on the south-east coast, and Dibirdibi, the island’s founding ancestor. In his paintings, three elements are omnipresent: the land, the sea and the sky. Each canvas is inspired by the infinite variations of light on the landscape created by the violently contrasting climate of the Gulf of Carpentaria. With his exceptional touch, which combines colour combinations, play on shapes, superimposed surfaces and variations in format, it’s impossible to remain indifferent to the stories that come to life before our eyes.

Sweers island, Fondation Cartier, 2022

Dibirdibi Country, 2008, National Gallery of Victoria.

Sally Gabori, Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre, 2008-2012. (© The Estate of Sally Gabori. Photo © Inge Cooper)

During a decade (2005-2015) of intense practice, Salli Gabori developed a deeply personal body of work, sometimes on exceptionally large formats (up to six metres). She has always given free rein to her brushstrokes and the pictorial translation of her memories, but her works celebrate her native land and her belonging to the Kaiadilt people.

Thundi, 2010, Private collection, Melbourne, Australia (© The Estate of Sally Gabori.Photo © Simon Strong)


Extract from« Sweers Island » 2008. 

His monumental, colourful paintings, which appear abstract, are topographical references and stories that tell his history and celebrate his ancestors.

You are drawn in by the combination of colours and the composition of the paintings. You don’t need to speak Kaiadilt to be moved by this highly original artist. A way of seeing the world.

All the Fish, 2005, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 190 x 424,5 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © The Estate of Sally Gabori / Adagp, Paris, 2022


My Country, 2007, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 152 x 100,5 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © The Estate of Sally Gabori / Adagp, Paris, 2022

Sally Gabori imagines “shapes, patterns, textures, colours and rhythms that correspond to the way she has learned to see the world and give it meaning”, explains Judith Ryan, curator specialising in Aboriginal art. Because what the artist expresses in her art is her homeland, her land, her sea and her sky, or the perception she has of it, the emotions that this lost place arouses in her.


Rockcod Story Place, 2006, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 104,2 x 76,7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © The Estate of Sally Gabori / Adagp, Paris, 2022

« My Father’s Country », 100x151cm 2009, (Provenance:Mornington Island)

Anthropologist and linguist Nicholas Evans, who worked with her for nearly 25 years, points out: “She is driven by a sudden burst of artistic creativity that seems to come from nowhere. Driven by an incredible energy and drive, she was extremely prolific. At the beginning, she could produce 14 small canvases in a morning, then her pace slowed when she moved on to much larger formats, but it is estimated that in the ten years before her death in 2015, she produced more than 2,000 works.


Extract from « Sweers Island », 2008

Salli Gabori with one of her monumental works, Dibirdibi Country, 2009

In 2005, she had her first solo exhibition in a Brisbane gallery, and the following year she was exhibited in a museum, the Queensland Art Gallery, also in Brisbane. She was commissioned to paint a mural for the Queensland Supreme Court in 2011, Brisbane Airport in 2014, and was invited to the Venice Biennale in 2013. She has also been exhibited in the UK and the Netherlands. Her paintings can now be found in public collections in Australia and at the Musée du Quai Branly in France.


Extract from “Sweers Island”, 2008

Ninjilki, 2008, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 198,8 x 460,6 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © The Estate of Sally Gabori / Adagp, Paris, 2022

Sally Gabori with her “co-painters”, second from the right

In 9 years, this great artist painted more than 2,000 canvases, including several collaborative works, painted with her sisters, daughters and nieces, 3 of which are presented in the Fondation Cartier exhibition. For these women, who were born on Bentinck before the exodus and are the last speakers of the Kayardilt language, these paintings are a way of bearing witness to their roots.

My country, 2016

Dibirdibi country, 2012

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