Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi

In December 2014 Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi held its very last exhibition. Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi was founded in 1983, Gabrielle was a pioneer art dealer in the sense that she helped bring international attention to the extraordinary art of Indigenous Australians. Her work also helped a movement that was to reassess the place of Indigenous art, a move that took the art of Australia’s Indigenous people from the walls of ethnographic museums to centre stage in the contemporary art gallery. And it did so internationally.

"My life has changed because of this gallery and because of the people I have met inside it and for the art that I have seen on its walls"

Gabrielle Pizzi

Indigenous Art in Australia is of course very much a living and contemporary force with artists working in the remotest places in Australia and in the very heart of its largest cities. The landscape of Indigenous art in Australia is immense and diverse. There are the great artists, longed practiced, deeply knowing. There is also a process of constant renewal with new and emerging artists producing yet more diversity in contemporary art practice.

Indigenous art is also a knowledge force and a weapon for justice and land rights. Creating artworks is deeply entwined with culture, environment, law and spirituality. Explore the blogs and magazines and films on the Creative cowboy films website and you will meet some of these artists and learn from them about the cultures of Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait.

In 2004 and after the death of Gabrielle Pizzi, Samantha Pizzi continued in her mother’s footsteps. The process of taking over the gallery from a mother and renowned figure in the art world would not have been an easy one but Samantha carried this transition off with distinction. She was assisted over this period by Rod Mcleish and Grant Smith. At the end of 2014 it was time to close the gallery and for Samantha, Rod and Grant it is a time for new beginnings. Samantha leaves the gallery to enable her to spend more time with her young son, whose father lives in Italy. Grant tells me the decision not to sell the gallery but to close it was made because they believed a sale would not be appropriate because they did not want to lose control of the distinguished ‘brand’ so personally labelled.

So it was that in December 2014 we all gathered in the Melbourne inner suburb of Fitzroy, itself a creative place, to honour the work of Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi and its artists over the 30 plus years of curating an extensive series of exhibitions of the extraordinary work of the artists and communities represented by the gallery.

The passion of collectors can be expressed by the speech, made on behalf of Samantha, by the dedicated collector and lawyer Steven Casper. Here Steven celebrates the gallery and tells us something of his own relationship with Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi. I would also like to thank Steven.

I will hand over to Steven

We stand here today on the land of the Kulin Nation and we pay respect to their elders both past and present.

My name is Steven Casper and I’m here tonight as a friend of this extraordinary gallery - Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi. My association with the gallery began less than 20 years ago and I appreciate that there are many in the room tonight whose relationship with this gallery pre-dates mine.  So in that respect, I know that my personal reflections simply reflect one person’s experience, at the same time acknowledging that this gallery has meant so much to so many.

Samantha has asked me to pass on her thanks for the support you have all shown this gallery. She also wanted to thank the incredible artists and the communities represented by this gallery over many years.

So many memories and so many stories to tell.

This gallery opened about 30 years ago bearing the name of its founder. This gallery was described in an article in The Australian a couple of weeks ago as:

‘long the starriest and the best known name on the commercial aboriginal art scene’

And, that is because over the years this gallery has hosted shows from art centres from across the country. Likewise it has showcased city-based painters, photographers, video artists and installation artists. 

Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi introduced indigenous art to so many in the art world, placing it in its right context, shining light on the cause when the movement needed a champion.  

So tonight we reminisce, admittedly there is a tinge of sadness but that sadness needs to be engulfed by a sense of celebration because, for over 30 years, this gallery has made a difference.

I recall hearing stories of the early Papunya Tula exhibitions held at this gallery where Gabrielle would fly to the nation’s centre and meet with the centre’s co-ordinator Daphne Williams and applying the refined Pizzi eye to which works would make the cut and those which were to be left behind.  

The Warlimpirrnga exhibition of 1988 is now folklore because all the paintings from that exhibition at this gallery were bought and donated to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) by Ron and Nellie Castan. No surprise, because this is a gallery which prides itself on displaying museum quality contemporary works.

There are my light-hearted memories. For example, when I was just a junior lawyer buying my first pieces of artwork, I used to visit Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi on pay day every fortnight, with cheque in hand, paying off my artwork in numerous instalments.

In fact, the day after one such visit, coinciding with Rosella Namok’s Nother Way exhibition, I was asked to enter the scary private office of Gabrielle Pizzi and I recall being mortified, thinking that the reason I was being summoned could only have been because my cheque had bounced. It hadn’t and that catch up with Gabrielle was one of many wonderful encounters I shared with her.

In fact, this gallery has also served a dual purpose for me, namely as both a gallery and a storage facility, because I would see works here which I simply couldn not resist. I would buy them, but I would keep them here, because I was always too scared to take the pieces home and confess to my wife that I had bought yet another painting. 

I was recently asked to share a couple of my favourite memories of this gallery. I am not sure I can do so because there are so many memories, but here are two memories worth recalling.

Firstly the opening of an Ikuntji exhibition which I think may have taken place around 2000 where the female artists of Haasts Bluff had flown to Melbourne for their first trip down south. Hearing that the works had been hung, I excitedly ran down to the gallery early and I remember Gabrielle waiting for me at the door, anticipating my arrival, motioning to me to be quiet as I entered. 

For there, in the middle of the gallery space, on that ottoman couch that always resided in the middle of the gallery at Flinders Lane, lay the three artists; two on the ottoman couch, one on the floor, all of them were asleep as they were recovering from the secret women’s business they had attended to in the desert of central Australia the night before. It hit me that the stories unfolding on the gallery walls were real and though ancient in so many ways, these were living and contemporary stories.

My second memory was the 2002 Willy Tjungurrayi​ exhibition. For me, that remains one of the greatest solo shows of Indigenous paintings that I have ever seen. What I remember most is, together with my friend Rohan Davis, meeting Gabrielle in the gallery as the unstretched canvases for the exhibition arrived.  

Once inside the gallery, Gabrielle locked the doors and we then unrolled the canvasses, laid out every single canvas of that exhibition and did so slowly, one by one, I whittled down the canvasses until I selected my favourite. I purchased that one and that painting still hangs at the head of my dining room at home, the central place for my family gatherings. Today Willy Tjungurrayi’s Hail Storm at Kaakuratintja still serving as the backdrop for all the important milestones in my family’s life.

So we have come here tonight because this gallery has been a part of our life, it has impacted on us.  Firstly that is because of the people who gather here. We visited the gallery to see what was on the walls, but part of the package included meeting people here.

In this respect, I want to pay particular tribute to Samantha, for the manner in which she has operated this gallery, fuelled by the same almost unachievable level of integrity which had driven her mother. I applaud Samantha’s ethical approach to running the gallery and for her generosity and continued friendship. 

To the fabulous Grant Smith who, as you enter the gallery, would greet you in any number of languages and somehow managed to match you and the perfect piece of art for your collection.  One point to celebrate is that Grant now has more time to spend with Kevin who, through Grant, is also an irreplaceable part of the gallery’s family. And to Rod, mild mannered, considered, loyal, complimenting those around him and always with an interesting perspective. They are only some of the many characters I have met in the gallery. 

But we all cherish our time at this gallery, not solely because of the people who we have met here, but also because of what we discovered on the walls, the great pieces of art. How we were moved by that art, how it grabbed us and stirred us and changed us. Because above all that’s what’s this place has been about - the art.  

I still remember the John Mawrundjul exhibition at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi back in 2007 and I recall the powerful words of Judith Ryan (NGV) who opened the exhibition and, if I can, I would like to use Judith's words from that opening:

'In asserting the importance of land and their inalienable openness with it, artists like Mawrundjul are making art that is profoundly political and spiritual, which now underscores the way we perceive Australia….. The best contemporary Aboriginal works possess a unique aesthetic aura born of truth and, as Gabrielle Pizzi asserted with unerring conviction, can hold their own alongside any work from the international art world’

Friends, we come here tonight to say goodbye to the gallery but also to say thank you. And it is the thank you that causes us to celebrate. I feel that I have aged with this gallery by my side.  My life has changed because of this gallery and because of the people I have met inside it and for the art that I have seen on its walls. And if you can say the same thing, then in truth, tonight we all have so much to celebrate.  

On behalf of everyone here, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, we salute you and we thank you.   

Samantha Pizzi

Note: Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi represented the work of artists from communities and art centres including Balgo Hills, Tjala Arts, Papunya Tula Artists, Maningrida, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka CentreWarmun Art Centre, Mimili Maku Arts and Kaltjiti Arts, as well as work by the most innovative city-based painters, photographers, video artists and installation artists such as Julie Gough, Leah King-Smith, Christian Thompson, Alick Tipoti and Ben McKeown.

SUBJECT: Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi / Indigenous art / Curatorial / Art collecting / Aboriginal art / Melanesian art (Torres Strait) / Contemporary art