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The vibrant colors of Sally Gabori at the Fondation Cartier

From July 3 to November 6, 2022, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art presents the first solo exhibition of Aboriginal artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori outside Australia: color at the service of a people.

This is my land, my sea, who I am.
Sally Gabori »

Considered one of the greatest Australian contemporary artists of the past two decades, Sally Gabori began painting in 2005, around the age of 80, and quickly achieved national and international artistic fame. In a few years of rare creative intensity, until her death in 2015, she developed a unique work in vibrant colors with no apparent connection with other aesthetic currents, particularly within contemporary Aboriginal painting.

Bringing together around thirty monumental paintings, the exhibition is produced in close collaboration with the artist’s family and the Kaiadilt community, as well as with the greatest specialists in Kaiadilt art and culture.

An exhibition in homage to this artist whose work fascinates with its spontaneous, luminous and deeply original character.

Kaiadilt, a life in exile

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda SALLY GABORI, 2009, Dibirdibi Country, 2009, Private Collection, Melbourne. Photograph: Mornington Island Art, Queensland © The Estate of Sally Gabori

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was born around 1924 on Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. She belongs to the Kaiadilt people and speaks the Kayardilt language. His name, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, comes from the kaiadilt tradition that everyone is named according to their place of birth and their totem ancestor. Thus, Mirdidingkingathi indicates that Sally Gabori was born in Mirdidingki, a small cove located south of Bentinck Island, and that her “conception totem” is juwarnda, the dolphin.

Largely isolated, with a population reaching 125 in 1944, the Kaiadilt are the last coastal people of Aboriginal Australia to have come into lasting contact with European settlers. Sally Gabori and her family have long led traditional lives, relying almost entirely on their island’s natural resources. Like most women, Sally Gabori was responsible for fishing, tending the stone fish traps that line the shores of the island, and weaving natural fiber baskets.

From the early 1940s, Presbyterian missionaries who had been living on Mornington Island, north of Bentinck Island since 1914, tried to convince the Kaiadilts to join their mission, in vain. But in 1948, following a cyclone and tidal wave that flooded much of their land and contaminated freshwater supplies, the last 63 Kaiadilt residents, including Sally Gabori and all of his family, were evacuated to the Presbyterian mission on Mornington Island. Their exile, which they thought would be short-lived, will ultimately span several decades. Upon their arrival in Mornington, the Kaiadilts were housed in camps on the beach, and the children separated from their parents and settled in mission dormitories, with the prohibition to speak their mother tongue, thus breaking all ties with their culture and their traditions.

From the 1990s, after years of struggle for the recognition of Aboriginal territorial rights, Australian legislation recognized the rights of the Kaiadilt to their land and a small housing complex, or outstation, was established on Bentinck Island, in Nyinyilki, to allow Kaiadilt who so wish – including Sally Gabori – to see their native island again and stay there temporarily.

Painting his native land

Sally Gabori started painting in 2005, at over 80 years old. Her works, seemingly abstract, are as much topographical references as stories with deep meaning for her, her family and her people. They celebrate both different places on her native island, which Sally Gabori has not seen for almost forty years, and the people in her family who are linked there by name. The places she paints are also associated with political struggles for the recognition of the Kaiadilt’s rights to their land.

Not inherited from a kaiadilt iconographic tradition, Sally Gabori’s paintings are above all the testimony of an imagination with an unlimited horizon, of an impressive formal freedom, nourished by the infinite variations of light on the landscape caused by the climate. violently contrasting Gulf of Carpentaria. Combination of colors, interplay of shapes, superposition of surfaces, variation of formats: during the nine years of her artistic activity, Sally Gabori painted nearly 2,000 canvases exploring the multiple resources of pictorial expression as if in accelerated motion.

In her early days, Sally Gabori worked on small format canvases, which she executed with a fine brush and undiluted colors. From 2007, she changed scale to produce monumental canvases 6 meters long, retaining all the vigor of her gesture and her audacity in the use of color. That same year, inspired by her first return to her native land, Sally Gabori led a considerable effort to map many places dear to her on the web. She creates three collaborative paintings 6 meters long with her sisters and nieces, all born on Bentinck Island before the exodus. Towards the end of her career, she also painted important works with her daughters Amanda and Elsie, and encouraged her other daughters, Dorothy and Helena, to enter the Mornington Island Art Center.

After its demise in 2015, the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane and then the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne devoted a major retrospective to him in 2016 and 2017. His works are now present in the most important Australian public collections.

A discovery exhibition

The Cartier Foundation presents in this exhibition some thirty paintings by Sally Gabori, including the spectacular large formats that have marked her artistic production, as well as three collaborative works produced with other kaiadilt artists, in particular her daughters.

Thanks to exceptional loans from major Australian museums, such as the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and HOTA, Home of the Arts, as well as the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and private collectors, l he exhibition invites the public to discover an immense colourist whose work, deeply rooted in the history of her people, bears witness to an extraordinary pictorial modernity.

To complete this major exhibition of paintings, which leaves plenty of room for contemplation, the Cartier Foundation is creating, in close collaboration with Sally Gabori’s family and the Kaiadilt community, a website dedicated to the life and work of the artist. It bears witness to the richness of her work and the important cultural legacy she left to Kaiadilt generations. Through numerous documents and testimonies gathered in Australia for the exhibition, this site reveals the most exhaustive archive ever brought together on the history of Sally Gabori and the Kaiadilt people.


To accompany Australian Aboriginal artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori’s first solo exhibition outside Australia, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art is honoring the artist’s life and work through an immersive project online available at:

Header photo : Sally Gabori, Amy Loogatha, Netta Loogatha, May Moodoonuthi, Dawn Naranatjil, Paula Paul & Ethel Thomas, Sweers Island, 2008. Arthur and Suzie Roe Collection, Melbourne, Australia. Photo © Simon Strong.

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