A Brush with History

Just six months ago, the majority of the artists now exhibiting at the Woolloongabba Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, had never held a paintbrush in their hands. Now, they are among the most celebrated of Aboriginal artists, and their works on canvas attract bidding wars and price tags in the five-figure range.

Sally Gabori, from remote Bentinck Island in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria, and fellow female artists ranging in age from 60 to 82 are from the Kaiadilt tribe of north Queensland, and have just opened a new exhibition to rave reviews. The images, which have a freshness and originality reminiscent of the abstract expressionists, are very much linked to their country, detailing in nonfigurative form and unusual color combinations the topography and mythological significance of their tiny island home. For an art world that craves authenticity, the extraordinary canvases of the Bentinck group score a perfect 10.

The story of Sally Gabori and her fellow artists (May Moodoonuthi, Paula Paul, Dawn Narranatjil, Netta Loogatha, Amy Loogatha, and Ethel Thomas), and how the sale of their artwork is helping build an outstation on their ancient homeland and facilitating the return of young Kaiadilt, is as fascinating as the artwork itself.

The origins of the Kaiadilt people remain shrouded in mystery and are currently the subject of intense scientific research led by Paul Memmott of the University of Queensland and a team that includes anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, geneticists, and geologists. The ancestors of the Kaiadilt were probably living in the Southern Gulf area of Queensland about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, when the sea levels were rising at the end of the Ice Age, flooding what was once Lake Carpentaria. But then the sea levels dropped again, and the Kaiadilt islands of Bentinck and Sweers emerged in roughly their present outlines and were colonized by a breakaway group from the mainland, who traveled there on the most basic of watercraft. These people, who came to identify themselves as the Kaiadilt, depended mainly on sea foods for subsistence and constructed many hectares of enclosed fish traps—littoral paddocks from which they could readily harvest their catch.

Gradually the Kaiadilt named all of their country, differentiating the better food and water resources, good camping places, and sites they recognized as being of spiritual significance, which they call Story Places. This early colonization period is encoded into the Kaiadilt sacred histories that tell of particular totemic identities such as Rock Cod, Crane, and Seagull, who were believed to be active in the final shaping of the coast and the establishment of the numerous Story Places. The Kaiadilt then lived in relative isolation until 1866 when Sweers Island became a small base of operations for a customs house. Despite being evicted from Sweers Island by the newcomers, the Kaiadilt maintained traditional ownership of Bentinck Island. They returned to Sweers when the customs house ceased to operate about a decade or so later.

In 1914, a Presbyterian mission was established on nearby Mornington Island, and missionaries made various attempts to befriend the Kaiadilt. During 1947-48, they persuaded the remaining 63 tribal members to be transported to the mission, including the seven women whose work is in the current exhibition. The exact reasons for the transfer remain unclear, but it followed a long period during which there was drought, the loss of freshwater sources after a tidal wave, group in-fighting, and a severe demographic collapse. The Kaiadilt were therefore the last tribal group of Aboriginal coastal hunter-fishers in Australia to leave their traditional lifestyle.

It was not until 1986 that the Kaiadilt had the opportunity to resettle on Bentinck Island, and today the seven artists spend at least half of the year at a small outstation located there.

It seems improbable that there are any external stylistic influences on the art of this group. There is no history of contact with art galleries or art texts or even collections of foreign paintings. The only prolonged contact with the paintings of others would have been with the art produced at Mornington Island since the 1960s, but the Bentinck Islanders’ work is radically different in style. We must conclude that their expressionistic canvases come directly and relatively spontaneously from the memory of their country and from the experience of growing up there.

Many of the paintings depict specific named Kaiadilt places (which are also often part of their titles). One recurring geographic theme in this exhibition is Kaiadilt Story Places, sacred sites believed to have been created by ancestral beings who left something of their magical spirit or essence at that site. As in other parts of Aboriginal Australia, these ancestral beings are believed to have been part human and part animal, plant, or meteorological phenomena. Some of these sites can be ritually invoked to yield the species or phenomenon that made the site. Thus, for example, there is a ritual to cause the reproduction or multiplication of barramundi fish at the Barramundi Story Place.

A number of the more commonly known Story Places are Rainbow Serpent (Thuwathu), Barramundi (Kurndawurnda), Dog (Kurthurrawarrayarba), Lightning (Birinka), Waterspout (Thandaman), Rock Cod (Dibirdibi), Redbill (Kathuka), Barracuda (Darrngkaa), Moon (Waldarra), Waterlily (Kardarra), and Black Crane (Bujuku). Many of these are represented in the exhibition.

Some of the artists have also painted their birthplaces, from which they traditionally obtained their names. Sally’s Aboriginal name, for example, is Mirdidingkaingathi Juwarnda, which means born on the south side of Bentinck Island and having the dolphin as her personal totem.

It is the Kaiadilt painters’ active memory of, and strong emotional connection to, their traditional places that generates their art. The life of the Kaiadilt of old has been brilliantly expressed in these original, perceptually unique, and strikingly creative art works after 60 years of migrations, readjustments, and reconnection to their homeland.

More information about the Kaiadilt artists is available from the web site of the Woolloongabba Art Gallery at http://www.harryscollar.com/wag/online_ex.html

Ian McIntosh is a senior editorial advisor to Cultural Survival and director of International Partnerships at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Paul Memmott is the director of the Aboriginal Environments Research Center, University of Queensland.

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