PARIS — The indigenous Australian artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, also known as Sally Gabori, didn’t start painting until she was about 80 years old. During her last decade of life, she created an astonishing number of abstract, large-scale paintings that together form a cartography of emotional memory tied to her ancestral home. Of her more than 2,000 canvases, 30 are on display at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in her first solo exhibition outside Australia.
For approximately the first 25 years of her life, Gabori lived on Bentick Island, off the northern coast of Queensland, home to a tiny Kaiadilt community considered to be among the last Aboriginal peoples to come in contact with European settlers. In the late 1940s a natural disaster on the island forced the 63 surviving Kaiadilt to evacuate to a Presbyterian mission on nearby Mornington Island, where children were separated from their parents and forbidden from speaking their native Kayardild. The resettlement, which many hoped would be short lived, turned out to be permanent.
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I was immediately drawn to “Mararrki King Alfred’s Country” and “Sweers Island” (both 2008), two vertically stacked canvases of sinuous geometric shapes that evolve organically amid a sea of cobalt and turquoise. Although not noted here, Gabori made these paintings collectively with other Kaiadilt women. Suggesting bird’s-eye views of coastal landscapes, Gabori and her collaborators do more than just map physical terrain from memory. With vibrant colors and loving attention to detail they’ve created a trace of what these places felt like and meant to them.
The near absence of wall texts allows more physical and psychic space for Gabori’s oeuvre. Visitors’ guides are tucked away underneath some stairs. Titles and dates are printed in small white text on the concrete floor.
The immensity of Gabori’s canvases invites physical dialogue. In one impressive room 10 large works from her Dibirdibi series are displayed side by side. Viewers have to get up close to see nuanced details of texture and step far back to take in the fullness of their compositions — black streaking through flames of fuchsia, ocher, and blood orange.
Gabori painted alla prima, brushing colors on top of still-wet layers. Her technique conveys emotion through abstraction in a way that parallels polyphonic music: melodies and harmonies, major and minor notes, crash together to carry viewers across variable waves of sound — or, here, light. In a collection of works that share the title Thundi (2008-12), a hazy layer of white softens Gabori’s palette; their intensity is built through the visible movement of her brushstrokes, orchestrating the symphony of her materials.
It wasn’t until I was about to leave that I found the visitors’ guide, which addresses Gabori’s life, the history of the Kaiadilt, and how these intersect with European colonialism in Australia. The guide also points to a dedicated website, which includes a rich archive of videos and photos, including interviews with family members. Clearly, the curators have done thorough research. But excluding this material from the exhibition space is not a neutral choice, especially in France, where the typical approach to the country’s colonial history is to invisibiliser — to keep invisible its violently oppressive, emotionally disturbing, and politically complicated legacy.
Is the direct aesthetic experience gained through this curatorial choice worth the physical absence of contextualizing information? In many ways it’s a question that resonates with the loss of homeland at the core of Gabori’s art. The Kaiadilt survived potential extinction, but a direct relationship to Bentick Island and their traditional way of living there was irremediably severed. Gabori leaves us not with an answer but with an archive of her deeply personal immersion in a relationship to place that is irrevocably changed.
Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori continues at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (261 bd Raspail, Paris, France) through November 6. The exhibition was curated by Juliette Lecorne.