Gail Mabo: Mabo Kara Art

Australian High Commission, Singapore; Toured by Umbrella Studio, Townsville
11 June - 28 August 2014

In June 2014 the Australian High Commission in Singapore became the focus of Torres Strait Islander culture, through an exhibition of paintings and prints by Townsville artist Gail Mabo and performance of the Jaran Dancers, celebrating Mabo Day and NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week. The exhibition titled Mabo Kara Art, represents an intensive period of work, over the past nine months, based on the artists travels through Aboriginal country and her Torres Strait connections. The name Mabo has become synonymous with the struggle for land rights and the bond between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with their land. Gail, the middle daughter of land rights campaigner Eddie Koiki Mabo, articulates her understanding of the natural environment, sharing with us insights, experiences, interpretations and visions of what land and place means for her.

The Australian High Commission Building provides a vast interior space with a cavernous ceiling and grey stone floor. Beyond the atrium, at the rear of the main foyer, is a massive timber lined five metre high wall which provides a natural warm surface amidst the white painted walls and glazed entrance. This space is demanding, and requires careful consideration when installing art. The twenty-nine works in this show provide an overwhelming contrast of colour amidst the sombre earth tones of the High Commission. The radiance of yellow, blue and orange bounce from the wooden panelled walls where a multitude of uniform acrylic canvases cluster in portrait formats, occasionally pairing up as diptychs and even triptychs, filling the almost thirty metre long wall with Mabo’s characteristic landscape style, including layered forms written over the stratified background.

Whilst Gail Mabo began as a dancer, graduating in 1983 from the National Aboriginal and Islander Dance Academy, Sydney, she has since diversified her skills, becoming a mature visual artist. She owes much to her mentor, the artist Arone Meeks, an established Indigenous painter working in far North Queensland, and has also worked in the printmaking medium with Ron McBurnie. Mabo was one of the founding members of ‘Murris in Ink’, a group of Townsville Indigenous printmakers working out of Umbrella Studio, which has become a gathering point for special projects for many local Indigenous artists. The exhibition also includes key lino prints (from a previous body of work, now the subject matter of some large murals at James Cook University Singapore campus), which explore traditional bush tucker and some Torres Strait Islander motifs, including clams, yams and coral clusters. 

Mabo also experiments with a series of colourful monoprints exploring new motifs, including an irregular circular form; these are often highly abstract and have particular references to the artist’s journeys and discoveries in the traditional lands around North Queensland. They also provide interpretations and spiritual meanderings through a type of psychological space that Mabo conjures in her practice. She reiterates that her work is not didactic but rather it affords opportunities for the audience to engage and interpret their own lives and experiences within this land. 

The majority of the show is comprised of acrylic paintings, exploring three main motifs. The pared-back view of the earth reveals a series of layers of forms and voids painted over a surreal landscape, only perceivable by the hint of a horizon in the upper sections of each canvas. These richly coloured paintings are contrasted by the Reef-scapes which represent a new genre in Mabo’s portfolio. In this show she has also introduced a series of swirling explorations using the golden carp motif to evoke a sense of calm and tranquillity.

The work oscillates between the celestial, the aquatic and the earthly, and the reappearance of these themes is grounded by elongated figures and connected by a unifying red capillary or thread like form. The major wall provides a frieze of continuity where our eyes are pushed around multiple horizon lines in both the outback and the marine environment.

In discussion with Mabo, she spoke of the works being inspired by the connection to the land, especially her love of mud and the imagined space that exists between road cuttings, peeling back of the layers of history and revealing the spirits of the Indigenous peoples who lived on these lands. 

Amidst the terrestrial and aquatic paintings Mabo has produced a large hybrid work titled Land and Sea. This particular work acts like the linchpin, connecting the earlier works to a new genre in which the vantage point has shifted from the land to an aerial view of the Reef-scapes in the ultramarine waters of the Torres Strait. She has cleverly shifted from the horizontal and vertical planes, providing tracks and traces for the audience to explore, into what initially appear to be abstract forms that later reveal the layering levels of reef structure and passages between the corals. The characteristic elongated figure becomes a spectral form, neither floating nor walking on the surface but rather an integral energy embedded in the engagement within traditional space. 

Mabo Kara Art, represents a high point in the sharing of Indigenous culture through the tropical regions of Asia and gives prominence to the role of the Mabo family in their commitment to the ‘fiction of terra nullius.

 

Gail Mabo, Before Time, 2014. Monoprint, 77 x 50cm. Courtesy the artist and Umbrella Studio, Townsville. 

Gail Mabo, Clam shell. Linocut print, 70 x 100cm. Courtesy the artist and Umbrella Studio, Townsville. 

Gail Mabo, Bindal Dreaming. 3 Panel triptych. Courtesy the artist and Umbrella Studio, Townsville. 

Gail Mabo, Land to sea. Acrylic on canvas, 3 panel triptych, 122 x 137cm. Courtesy the artist and Umbrella Studio, Townsville. 

notes: 

Mabo Kara Art is an Umbrella Studio, Townsville, Touring Exhibition.