Can Gabori’s giant contemporary Indigenous work set a record?

Elizabeth Fortescue, Australian Financial Review, 1 March 2023

Is a large and luscious canvas about to set a new auction record for the acclaimed Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori? Crispin Gutteridge, head of Aboriginal art at auctioneers Deutscher and Hackett, thinks so.

The fame of the late Sally Gabori reached its apogee last year with a grandly-mounted solo exhibition of her work at the Jean Nouvel-designed FondationCartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.

The show, Sally Gabori, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda, was opened by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Gabori’s splashes of colour went not only to Paris but also to fashionable Milan where the exhibition remains on view at the Triennale di Milano museum until May 14.

Mr Gutteridge believes the FondationCartier’s glamorous backing will carry through to Gabori’s 198cm by 302cm Ninjilki, 2008.

“It’s an extraordinary work. I think it will get a record,” he told Saleroom.

The auction record for a Gabori stands at $79,773, including buyer’s premium, achieved in November 2021 by Deutscher and Hackett. Dibirdibi Country, 2011, commemorates Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria where Gabori was born in around 1924, not long after a 1918 massacre on the island in which many Indigenous people died.

In Ninjilki, Gabori again recalls her life at a specific location on Bentinck Island before 1948 when the island’s residents were forced by a series of natural disasters to move to Mornington Island.

“Distinguished by a permanent freshwater lagoon, it is a place where she remembered catching barramundi, or scooping up fresh water in baler and trumpet shells,” Mr Gutteridge writes in the sale catalogue.

“Gabori’s strong gestural mark-making, is an expression of her love for the landscape of her country but also belongs squarely in the realm of contemporary painting.”

Gabori began painting at the age of 81 and died 10 years later, in 2015. She suffered financial abuse at the hands of someone who was supposed to be protecting her interests.

Brett Evans, the former chief executive of the Mirndigan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation on Mornington Island, was jailed in February 2022 after pleading guilty to 35 charges of using his position dishonestly to gain advantage – in essence, selling Gabori works and pocketing the money himself. He was sentenced to four years and six months in jail with a non-parole period of 20 months. He was also ordered to pay reparations of $421,378.20 to the corporation, the estate of Sally Gabori and other artists.

Mr Gutteridge said none of the Sally Gabori works in the forthcoming Deutscher and Hackett sale are “connected with that episode”. All the works have copyright from the estate, and all were purchased prior to Evans taking over as CEO of the Aboriginal corporation in 2011, Mr Gutteridge said. They all came from either Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne or Raft Artspace in Alice Springs.

Other notable women artists in the auction include Noŋgirrŋa Marawili whose bark, Baratjara, was painted in earth pigments and printer ink and is estimated at $30,000 to $40,000.

Works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Wynne Prize finalist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu are featured. There are several beautiful objects by contemporary artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey including Woven Mat, 2007, made from rusted galvanised iron and fencing wire and estimated at $6000 to $9000. Connelly-Northey was commissioned to make a large installation for the stunning Yiribana gallery in the Art Gallery of NSW’s new Sydney Modern building. 

“Her profile is definitely stronger,” Mr Gutteridge said.