March 2015


The extraordinary Mrs Gabori

By Quentin Sprague
Dibirdibi Country (2012), Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda (Mrs Gabori).

Dibirdibi Country (2012), Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda (Mrs Gabori). © The estate of the artist and Viscopy. Image courtesy of Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.

The meteoric career of Kaiadilt painter Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda

By any measure, Mrs Gabori’s rise was stellar. When the Kaiadilt artist began painting in 2005 she was aged in her early 80s, already a long-term resident in her community’s old people’s home. Her big, brashly colourful and seemingly abstract renderings of her traditional country almost immediately gained a foothold in a then-booming market. Within months of picking up a brush on her adopted home of Mornington Island – the largest of a scatter known as the Wellesley islands in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, in Queensland – she had held her first solo exhibition. Five years later she was widely recognised as one of Australia’s most collectable artists.

Gabori, whose Kaiadilt name was Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, which refers to the site of her birth and her totem animal, the dolphin, died in February. She had largely ceased painting in 2012 due to declining health, though she remained a prominent figure. Patrick McCaughey, an art historian and former director of the National Gallery of Victoria, recently singled her out as one of the greats, and later this year a vast, digitally printed commission will be unveiled at Brisbane’s newly redeveloped international airport terminal. A career retrospective is scheduled at the Queensland Art Gallery for 2016. It’s not a bad achievement for someone who spoke next to no English and hadn’t experienced sustained contact with settlers until her people were brought to Mornington Island’s Presbyterian mission in 1948.

Yet although Gabori’s late-blooming career tells a compelling story in and of itself, it also raises harder questions about Aboriginal art in Australia. Since 2009, when the effects of the global financial crisis began to strike this corner of the art world, an industry once worth as much as $100 million a year has struggled to recover. The reasons for this are complex, but they are generational as well as economic. Since its earliest days, the Aboriginal art market has been particularly attuned to the work of artists whose lives, like Gabori’s, were forged beyond the colonial frontier. The movement’s demise may have been written in its very blueprint.

With narratives like Gabori’s less and less likely to happen again, one question is becoming unavoidable: when the dust raised by the Aboriginal art boom finally settles, who will be left holding the prize?

The Kaiadilt’s ancestral territories, which extend across the southern reaches of the Wellesley group, lie to the south-east of Mornington Island; just far enough for the group to maintain a historical distance from the Lardil and Yankaal of the north. For years they had resisted the Mornington mission’s encroachment, but a disastrous confluence of environmental and social factors in the late 1940s brought their tiny society close to collapse. They were finally drawn to Mornington, where they were met among their northern neighbours as outsiders with a fierce reputation. Even a partial return to country wouldn’t come until a basic outstation was established on Gabori’s home island of Bentinck in the 1980s.

In a 1972 mental health study of the Mornington community, the anthropologist John Cawte cast their estrangement in dramatic light. “It is the little Kaiadilt nation,” he wrote, “that exemplifies the extremes of rapid exposure to Western influence, ecological hazards, social disintegration, and mental disorder.” There is truth in his perspective, but others are careful to convey a more nuanced picture. Among them is Professor Nicholas Evans, a linguist at the Australian National University and, along with a fast-shrinking group of elders, one of four or five remaining speakers of the Kaiadilt language. Evans arrived on Mornington as a graduate student in 1982 and has worked with the group ever since.

“They were marginalised and ridiculed,” he told me late last year as we sat in his book-filled office in Canberra, discussing Gabori’s career. “I think they felt the severing from country very profoundly [but] my first impression when I got there was just of this incredible liveliness. Totally ribald, outrageous humour. Incredible emotional directness.”

Life on Mornington had by this time spiralled out of control. A shire council had taken the mission’s place in 1978, staffed in large part by a regular turnover of non-Aboriginal bureaucrats. Almost in concert, the opening of a “wet” canteen further eroded the fragile post-mission order. In this fractured social environment, alcohol abuse began to take its toll; for many, drinking became a way of life, and murder and suicide quickly reached epidemic proportions. When an alcohol management plan was introduced in 2003, police reinforcements were brought in from Cairns to help subdue the resulting unrest.

“By the mid ’80s it was horrendous,” Evans recalls. He characterises Gabori, along with a wider group of older women, as “the classic women in the family … holding it together”. No one expected her to become a nationally renowned artist.

“I think it’s a giant mystery, almost a religious mystery, what happened with [Mrs Gabori],” Evans put it as our conversation drew to a close. “If you were to ask me on my deathbed, ‘What are the three or four things in your life that totally baffled you and bowled you over?’ that would be one of them … How is it that someone is just not who you thought they were, that they’ve got these incredible talents?”

I met Gabori in Mornington, now known as Gununa, on a Tuesday morning last August. I had flown in from Cairns the afternoon before, stopping briefly in the sun-blasted town of Normanton before skipping across the strait and descending towards the island’s mangrove-fringed beaches. The dry-season winds that once brought Macassan traders to the northern reaches of the Gulf blew through the dusty streets and whistled under the eaves of the small unit I had booked at the edge of the community.

At the art centre, a low-slung, brick-red bunker backing on to the airstrip, I was introduced to three of Gabori’s daughters – Elsie, Dorothy and Helena – and together we piled into the art centre mini-van and drove through the surrounding network of flat, gridded streets.

We stopped to collect Gabori’s youngest son, Maxwell, and then another daughter, Amanda, who had her own young grandson LeBron in tow. Gabori, they told me, had outlived 4 of her 11 children and was the matriarch of an extended family that includes, at last estimate, 26 great-grandchildren.

When we arrived at the old people’s home, Gabori joined us at a table in the sun and sat quietly as the impromptu reunion flowed around her. Aside from the tall cyclone-wire fence and an imposing automated gate, our surrounds seemed idyllic. A few ancient-looking figures sat listlessly in the shade, while beside us a sprinkler lazily coaxed the parched grass to turn green.

From time to time Gabori leant over to Elsie and spoke a quiet phrase or two in Kaiadilt. Her lack of English made conversation even with her closest family difficult; although generously mediated by her daughters, my own attempts met with little traction. Perhaps sensing the difficulties, Elsie stepped in.

“We are very thankful for what Mum has done for us,” she told me, holding on to Gabori’s shoulder. The only suggestion that the tiny, almost impossibly frail woman folded into a chair next to me was one of Australia’s most celebrated artists was a smear of turquoise paint that stained her dark dress.

When Gabori began painting, it seemed as if the remote art boom might bypass Queensland altogether. The majority of the movement’s stars, past and present, hailed from the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Governments there had invested heavily in Aboriginal art, but beyond the success of a group of young women from Lockhart River, Queensland was notably absent from what had become a celebrated narrative of cultural and economic revival. The Beattie state government took steps to address this in 2004, initiating the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA). Its remit was clear: create a new market.

Brett Evans, a long-term Mornington Island resident who had inherited management of the community’s ailing art centre three years earlier, recognised the opportunity. Since arriving in 1984, Evans, who is married into a local Lardil family (and is no relation to Nicholas Evans), had shuttled between various positions on the island, including stints as a teacher and an outstation co-ordinator. By 2005 the Aboriginal art market was, in his reckoning, “like a golden goose”: well aware of the successes at Lockhart River, he realised that if the Mornington art centre were to survive, the artefacts that local artists had been making for tourist outlets in places like The Rocks had to give way to fine art.

“I started talking to these guys and saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to get into the painting, that’s where the money is,’” he told me matter-of-factly during my visit.

With funding from QIAMEA, Evans contracted Simon Turner, an enthusiastic arts worker who was then running a small commercial space in Brisbane called Woolloongabba Art Gallery, to deliver a series of painting workshops on the island. Turner came with a certain pedigree: as a young art-college graduate in the late 1990s he’d accepted a position to set up and manage art centres in Utopia, a 5000-square-kilometre area north-east of Alice Springs that had, over the previous decade, been the scene of one of the most significant chapters in the Aboriginal art movement. Although a handful of senior women were associated with the region, including Minnie Pwerle and Kathleen Petyarre, it was Emily Kame Kngwarreye – the grand dame of desert painting – whose work achieved worldwide acclaim.

On the ground, Kngwarreye’s success created a market frenzy; private dealers, carpetbaggers and random speculators were paying anything from piles of cash to used Toyotas and second-hand clothes to secure the artist’s work. When Turner arrived in 1999, three years after Kngwarreye’s death, the wave had broken. In his assessment, the movement had been “gutted”.

“The demand had just destroyed it,” he told me recently on the phone from Brisbane. “[The artists] were simply trying to keep up.”

Turner’s guide was the entrepreneurial Utopia art co-ordinator Rodney Gooch, who had enjoyed a close working relationship with the senior artists of Utopia from the very beginning, and who is widely recognised as a major influence on Kngwarreye’s career. From Gooch, who passed away in 2002, Turner learnt that the “art” of art co-ordination combined market savvy with an ability to see things from the artist’s perspective. It also didn’t hurt to get your hands dirty.

“All of that stuff informed my practice,” Turner told me, “so when I went to Mornington I brought it with me.” The sequence of four workshops that he held at the art centre in 2005 initially focused on a group of Lardil men, inheritors of the local figurative painting tradition that was initiated by people including brothers Dick and Lindsay Roughsey in the 1960s. Turner encouraged the men to think more strategically about the market, showing them how to turn body designs into “abstract” paintings.

By the end of the first week they had a handful of works Turner deemed “exhibition quality”, but he still had the success of the Utopia women on his mind. As he recently told me, he was “looking for the old women immediately, but I was doing it quietly because I knew the men had to come first”.

During the second workshop, Evans introduced him to Gabori at Mornington’s old people’s home, and the next day she was at the centre, working. Everyone was struck by how assured her early paintings were. 

“I just thought, This woman is going to be massive,” Turner recalls. Within six months she was being hailed as a genius.

From her earliest paintings Gabori’s loose, expressive style made it clear to her advisers that bigger, for her at least, would be better. In the following months her canvasses grew dramatically in scale. Her first exhibition at Woolloongabba Art Gallery featured the first of the epic works – which eventually reached 8 metres in length – that quickly became something of a signature.

Gabori, in turn, was enlivened by her new-found status. Among the small group of female Kaiadilt artists that immediately sprang up around her, which included her nieces Netta Loogatha and Paula Paul, her position was soon clear: she was, as one commentator put it to me, the “queen bee” of the island’s art economy.

In late 2005, with Gabori’s star on the rise, Brett Evans began to court the lucrative southern market more directly. He sent an email to Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery with images of Gabori’s early canvasses attached. Another high-profile Aboriginal art dealer had already passed up the opportunity to represent the Mornington artists, but Beverly Knight, Alcaston Gallery’s director, recognised something in the rough, brightly coloured works.

“I like artists who have a totally different view of the world,” Knight explained to me recently. “They were very raw, the first group of paintings, but I could see there was huge potential.”

Knight, an assertive ex-restaurateur whose enthusiasm for Aboriginal art spilt over into a business in the late 1980s, is something of a major player in a small pool. At the market’s peak, her gallery had been responsible for some of the biggest stars of the movement. From the late 1990s onwards, luminaries such as the late desert painter Eubena Nampitjin, with whom Knight enjoyed a long association, had seen their prices driven rapidly upwards by bullish primary and secondary markets. By 2008, Nampitjin’s works were commanding as much as $75,000 in primary dealer exhibitions and occasionally more in the auction houses. This higher end of the market was crippled by the trickle-on effects of the GFC, which were compounded by changes to the rules of self-managed superannuation funds. Collections were consolidated and sold off, auction results plummeted, and the investment market took a hit: put simply, the party was over.

In 2009, with the market clearly faltering, Gabori was yet to achieve the acclaim of her better-known contemporaries. This worked in her favour: her works, then largely clustered in the $5000 to $10,000 range, were still accessible for collectors who had retreated from the market’s higher end. In addition, her foundation story – especially her first-contact status – was as near to perfect as anyone could imagine. As if on cue, the art world swooned.

Between late 2009 and early 2012, some 280 of Gabori’s paintings were shown in upwards of 22 solo and group exhibitions in commercial settings. Fifteen of these were held by Alcaston Gallery, which by this time had negotiated near-exclusive representation. Her prices rose quickly. This frenzy peaked between May and June 2011, when the gallery presented two major solo exhibitions – one each in Sydney and Melbourne – in quick succession, handling over half a million dollars’ worth of work. It seemed that, however briefly, acrylic paint and canvas had been transmuted into gold.

Although driven by Alcaston Gallery’s well-known commercial acumen, this saturation would not have been possible without what many described to me as Gabori’s strong work ethic. Before her decline, she would often complete six or seven large works in a day. This created its own challenges.

“Our biggest concern at the time was making it look like we weren’t a sweatshop,” Brett Evans told me.

“She just loved painting,” he continued, “but the good thing with [Mrs Gabori] was one day she’d paint five absolute crackers and the next day she would paint five we would throw away … With the amount of work she was producing you always had a really good choice.”

Knight agrees that careful editing has been a key to Gabori’s success: “[Mrs Gabori] managed crackers straight away,” she told me, “but I can remember, a year or so in, we’d go through hundreds of paintings to select a show.”

Unsurprisingly, this approach produced far more work than the market could absorb. With space at the art centre limited, a shipping container was soon required to store the overflow. These were perhaps best seen not so much as “rejects” – the failed works that any painter might edit out – but as “outtakes”: excess volume carefully edited to create a more contained and market-ready picture of Gabori’s artistic vision. Works that didn’t make the cut were incinerated at the local rubbish tip. In a practice not unusual in the world of Aboriginal art, this process, closely managed by a cast of third parties, occurred largely without Gabori’s knowledge.

During my visit I was struck by the ragged energy of the Mornington community: the loose groups of children stalking Gununa’s streets with ready smiles, the communal gatherings outside the well-stocked local store. There is a large school, a clinic, and various service providers on the island, but there is also a darker edge beneath these first impressions. Although Mornington’s canteen finally closed its doors in 2008, the community remains gripped by well-documented internal struggles. A thriving black market for alcohol has grown in the canteen’s absence, buoyed recently by locally produced moonshine. As in many remote centres, the island’s economy is heavily dependent on welfare and Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which were integrated into the Remote Jobs and Communities Program in 2013. In 2007–08, rates of diabetes were ten times that of the rest of Australia; assault-related presentations at the local clinic were 38 times higher. Four months before I visited, a group of suspects – aged between 14 and 16 – in a high-profile sexual abuse case had been flown to Mount Isa for questioning.

Against this backdrop, stories like Gabori’s are easily drawn as a beacon of hope; a flash of good news to transcend the bleak cycle of reporting that often drags Aboriginal communities into the national consciousness. There is truth to this, but it also risks oversimplification.

In the broader art world, the healthy ambition of youth drives generational renewal; in Aboriginal art, by contrast, old age is often equated with outmoded notions of cultural authenticity. This means that the newest star is usually the oldest. Although younger artists are readily motivated by the immediate success of those like Gabori, their own success can be much harder to secure, and, if it does come, far more modest. From a local perspective, the vagaries of taste that guide buyers can seem confounding. “I’ve been waiting a long time,” Elsie Gabori told me pragmatically, when I asked her during my visit if she has been selling her own paintings. “It’s not like Mum’s paintings: every time she paints, they go away.”

The resulting imbalance can have difficult consequences, especially when it comes to money. Mornington’s population is rising exponentially. In 2011, for example, almost 39% of residents were under 14, compared to just over 19% nationally. Where once elders like Gabori would have been supported by large extended families, for star painters the reverse is now usually true.

In the year after Gabori began painting, Brett Evans estimates, the art centre’s income went from $12,000 to $300,000. “It was like a drug to people,” he told me, referring to the market that quickly flared up. “At the start you think it’s a bit crazy and you’ve got a licence to print money.” In 2010, sales revenue alone was more than $900,000.

Gabori’s share of this windfall quickly created immense pressure within the community. Recognising that the art centre, which takes half of the 60% of the sale price that the gallery returns to the artist, was not only responsible for the creation of this income but also dependent on it, Evans, acting in a default extension of his role as art centre manger, struggled to make it work.

Following a series of meetings with Gabori’s family, he helped devise a system of monthly payments to six nominated bank accounts. When there was a big lump sum, large purchases such as cars or boats were negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The pressure, however, remained intense; jealousies and recriminations flew. Following a third-party intervention, the Queensland Public Trustee was brought in to manage Gabori’s money from afar, an arrangement that made it much more difficult for Gabori’s family to access the income from her practice. Money quickly accrued in her account, but as this shift also raised the spectre of a significant unpaid tax bill, it seemed likely, during my visit, that it would disappear just as fast.

In lieu of an adequate paper trail, Evans found himself roving the community photographing wrecked vehicles, trying to show the Trustee where much of the money had gone.

When Nicholas Evans began visiting Bentinck Island in the 1980s, the island had provided the Kaiadilt with a quiet alternative to Mornington. In the late ’90s there were often as many as 40 people there for the dry season, Kaiadilt elders joined intermittently by CDEP workers and young mothers seeking assistance with their babies.

“There were things people wanted to do,” he told me. “Like, the Bentinck ladies were saying they would like to have a clinic there, for example. You know? Setting out the things that they would really need to get an outstation going: a school, a kindergarten … One can imagine a world where the money from the painting could partly be put into supporting that. That’s not the world that came to pass.”

When I caught up with Beverly Knight in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, it was the week after last year’s Melbourne Art Fair, the biennial event that draws together commercial galleries from Australia and beyond for four days of highly charged commerce under the Royal Exhibition Building’s grand dome. Alcaston’s stall had featured Gabori’s work heavily. “We were run off our feet,” Knight told me, allowing her face a flash of exhaustion.

We settled in a room off the first-floor landing of the three-storey terrace that contains the gallery and an apartment Knight shares with her husband, Anthony. Around us the walls bloomed with paintings from their private collection: an “Emily” here, two “Rovers” there. A work by Ginger Riley, an acclaimed artist whose estate Knight represents, hung opposite a meticulous painting by the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, a progenitor of the entire movement, whose epic 1977 work Warlugulong set a record for Aboriginal art when it was sold at auction in 2007 for $2.4 million.

Knight, who had recently taken delivery of almost 150 of Gabori’s later works – the contents of the shipping container – is quick to point out that Gabori is an obvious successor to these figures. At an economic level, at least, it seems she is on the right track: “What [Mrs Gabori] earned was an incredible amount of money,” Knight tells me at one point. Yet she also readily admits to certain flaws in the industry; given her long commercial involvement it’s no surprise to her that the proceeds of Gabori’s paintings seem to have made little difference on the ground. When pressed, she suggests that there has always been space in the Aboriginal art industry for money managers to work closely with artists and their families to help them achieve more sustainable outcomes. The AFL, with which Knight has worked in a number of capacities, has long offered this kind of support for recruits from the bush who are plucked from obscurity to experience the sudden flush of fame and fortune.

Why no one has established a meaningful similar initiative for figures like Gabori, however, is far from clear. For her part, Knight maintains that the gallery’s responsibility only extends so far. She argues it is too late to iron out the deficiencies in the system: “Indigenous art isn’t going to earn the same money it did,” she tells me unequivocally. “It’s over.”

This bare assessment strikes me as emblematic of the market’s harshest tendencies. During our discussion we touch on younger artists, including a Cairns-based relative of Gabori’s whose work shows promise, but it’s clear that the elders of the movement remain the most prominent, with few exceptions. Not only does their work display the much-romanticised (and easily marketed) worldview that initially drew Knight to Gabori, it’s also where the highest value resides. In this light Knight’s comment takes on a different cast: advice to get in now, because paintings like these won’t be around forever.

For some, the narrative of Gabori’s brief career is compelling in its simplicity. As the art historian John McPhee recently put it, her paintings embody no less than “all of the sorrow experienced at having been exiled from her homeland, and, when able to return, her delight in the land of her youth”. For others, her creative arc might represent little more than the late phase of an industry that has seen acrylic paintings like hers flood into the market from some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. From this perspective, Aboriginal art is deeply etched with colonial anxieties; tangible benefits for artists and their communities seem at best fleeting, and at worst weighted in favour of city-based gallerists and collectors.

Reconciling these competing narratives remains difficult. “Complex systems throw up complex results,” Nicholas Evans told me when we met in Canberra. He focuses on the intangible aspects of Gabori’s late-found fame, as if these alone justify the stark material disparities that marked her career. “Symbolism is incredibly powerful,” he argues. “We need symbols that tell us who we are, and [Mrs Gabori] has given us something really important there.”

This points squarely towards the most elusive quality of Gabori’s work. For many Aboriginal artists the boundary between the act of painting and the mnemonic presence of the country they depict is permeable. Although often commented upon, this aspect of Aboriginal art remains the hardest to put into words; when it is captured it is usually done so through far more ephemeral means. In 2012, when Gabori was selected for the National Gallery of Australia’s second Indigenous Art Triennial, she found herself at the rear of a crowd gathered to hear another artist talk. The surrounding walls were dominated by a sequence of her own large works: discordant swathes of colour depicting the coral shoals and tidal eddies of Bentinck.

With no fanfare, Gabori rose up wordlessly from her wheelchair and began to dance in front of one of her paintings. As the crowd turned and the cameras rushed to record the spectacle, she appeared to be far away, shakily stamping her feet as her hand claps echoed in the space. Caught in a flurry of camera flashes, a history of unimaginable dissonances was briefly made tangible. No one quite knew what they were witnessing but everyone, it seems, believed.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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