Gabriella Possum learned the discipline of painting from an early age at the side of her famous father, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Born at Papunya in 1967, she first achieved recognition in 1983, for her entry in the Alice Art Prize, while a 16-year-old student at Yirara College.
From the mid 1980’s Clifford Possum had largely abandoned Papunya Tula, preferring to create works and sell them independently. While living in Alice Springs and maintaining close contact with his Anmatjerre countrymen at Mount Allan and Napperby he sold works through Aboriginal Arts Australia’s Centre for Aboriginal Art in Todd Street as well as to a range of independent dealers. Gabriella, along with her younger sister Michelle, meticulously filled in areas of dotting on many of her father’s emblematic canvasses from this period and onward to the following decade. These ‘assisted’ canvasses brought Clifford Possum increasing worldwide recognition until this practice became increasingly controversial in the light of media generated around the praxis of a number of famous desert artists including Possum, Turkey Tolson and Kathleen Petyarre, to name but a few.
Clifford Possum’s influence could be detected in Gabriella’s earliest paintings produced in her early 20’s. It was apparent in her ability to weave together a coherent and compelling narrative from the different iconic elements, symbols and stories of her tradition. Yet, Gabriella also forged her own style, appealingly decorative as well as evocative of her desert life and heritage.
By the early 1990’s Gabriella, now in her mid 20’s had given birth to the first of her children with husband Selwyn Burns, a member of the Aboriginal rock group Coloured Stone. She designed the record cover following their award as the best Indigenous album in the 1986 ARIA Awards and during the same period became the recipient of a Professional Development Grant, from the Aboriginal Arts Unit of the Australia Council for the Arts.
Throughout the late 1980’s Gabriella traveled with her father and sister, visiting galleries and painting publicly during exhibitions organized by Alice Springs entrepreneur Joy Aitken, who euphemistically called her traveling group ‘the Possum Shop’. At this time Gabriella’s works could be distinguished by her use of strong colours, inspired by the dramatic contrasts of the desert landscape. Her engaging Bush Tucker paintings were principally Women’s Dreamings from the Mt. Allen area, the traditional country of her Anmatyerre parents. The landscape, depicted in a way that strongly resonated with her father’s vision, featured exploding seed pods, the black seed traditionally ground for damper, as well as a proliferation of bush foods including bush banana, coconut, plum, and berries. Tracks were shown as women collected food in oval coolamons and gathered to sit with their legs spread, seen from the artist’s omnipotent perspective as U shapes, as they prepared the food for eating. The people who inhabit these paintings are unseen aside from their occasional footprints. They camped near sacred waterholes, indicated by roundels, where they engaged in ceremonies to give thanks for the abundance of food. They painted their bodies with ochre, plaited ceremonial belts and adorned their digging sticks with feathers. They represent both ancestral women who inhabited their country at the moment of creation and Gabriella’s countrywomen, who continue to collect bush foods and accept their custodial responsibility for the land today. Their children are told traditional stories in order to pass on the skills of finding food and water in the desert and how to continue to care for the sacred sites. The figurative elements and identifiable symbols in Gabriella’s paintings allow the narrative content to be easily deciphered during story telling.
By 1992 Gabriella Possum had settled with her growing family in Broadmeadow, on the outskirts of Melbourne. She and her father exhibited in Sydney at Coo-ee Gallery that year, before creating works that were exhibited in the U.S.A and throughout Europe in a number of exhibitions including Modern Art-Ancient Icon 1992 and Down Under 1993 while completing commissions for posters, clothing designs and licensed merchandise.
It was during this period that she developed the imagery for which she has become best known, the Seven Sisters Dreaming, that traces the movement of the Pleiades and the Morning Star as they journey amongst the constellations of the Milky Way.
The songlines of the Milky Way travel from the far northern reaches of Arnhem Land, down across the continent through Central Australia and beyond, into the Australian psyche. For the Aborigines it is the sacred residence of totemic beings, corresponding to an inner microcosm that guides vital aspects of their existence. In the version painted by Gabriella Possum the Seven Sisters traveled over a vast expanse of country, until they realised that they were being followed by a man called Wati-Nyiru who was a man belonging to the Tjakamarra skin group. He was an evil person who wanted to seduce and ‘own’ them. They tried to hide from him in caves, however the man disguised himself appearing in many different forms to deceive them. With little hope of relief, the Seven Sisters escaped through a fire at Kurlunyalimpa to the Milky Way where they became the stars of the Pleiades in the Constellation Taurus. There they remain safe, forever watching out over all women on earth. Wati-Nyiru followed them to the heavens and became the Morning Star in the constellation Orion and is unable to get near them as they move across the night sky. In her renditions of the story, Gabriella recreates the desert night sky with its luminous heavenly characters suspended in the deep blue of space. The Milky Way is depicted as clouds of softly glowing stars, with the major characters in the narrative appearing as singular stellar ‘landmarks’ that emerge from dark empty spaces. In the finest of these works Gabriella demonstrates her own singular style by employing all of the skill and technique she learnt sitting at her father’s side watching him vary his palette and variegate the margins of his dotting in each complimentary colour.
Foremost amongst the many important collections in which her works are held are the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, Flinders University Art Museum, the Holmes a Court Collection and the Kelton Foundation in Los Angeles, USA. Gabriella's works are included in these collections even though she has always worked for independent dealers. Since the mid 1990’s these have principally been located in Melbourne and include Peter Los, Des Rogers and Adam Knight, owner of Aranda Art Gallery. In 1999 she painted in the foyer of the United Nations, accompanying an exhibition of Western Desert paintings and since that time has painted in Melbourne exclusively for private dealers who have arranged for her participation in a number of events in Australia and overseas. In 2008 Adam Knight of Aranda Aboriginal Art Gallery commissioned a 20-metre art installation depicting Gabriella’s custodial Grandmother's Country for Jamie Durie’s display at the 2008 RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. When the display was awarded the gold prize by HRH Queen Elizabeth, Durie presented the Queen with an original work by the artist, a unique achievement. The work now hangs in the royal collection along side that of her famous father.