G Yunupingu (1970-2017), a man of the Gumatj clan of north-east Arnhem Land, learned to play guitar, keyboard, drums and didgeridoo as a child. Blind from birth, and left-handed, he famously learned to play a right-handed guitar upside-down. He performed with Yothu Yindi from 1985 to 1992, when he formed his own outfit, the Saltwater Band. Dr Yunupingu shot to prominence in 2008 with the release of his debut album, which was nominated for four ARIAs including Male Artist of the Year and Album of the Year; it won Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release. In March 2008 critic Bruce Elder foreshadowed Dr Yunupingu's importance: ‘Yunupingu has the potential to be to Indigenous music what painters such as Rover Thomas were to Indigenous art’, he wrote. ‘He is using a modern medium - in his case an angelic voice and the musical styles of gospel, soul and folk - to tell the traditional stories of his people and his culture. The result is authentically traditional aboriginal music that is instantly accessible to Western audiences.’ The Age critic called Rrakala (2011) ‘the definitive Australian folk record of our times’; in a cover article Rolling Stone called him ‘Australia’s most important voice’. Dr Yunupingu sings about Gumatj stories in Yolngu but his song ‘Gurrumul History’ is in English, the better to spread his story. ‘I like singing about the story properly, singing all the right names of land, and ancestors, because I have to give out the right story. It is like a celebration.’
Guy Maestri (b.1974) saw Dr Yunupingu perform in Sydney on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stunned and desirous of a portrait, Maestri contacted a friend in the music industry who helped to track Dr Yunupingu down in Darwin - but to the artist’s dismay, the singer was set to fly to New York the following weekend. Maestri seized the offer of very short meeting early on the Saturday morning at Sydney airport. Not only did he complete many sketches on the spot, he writes that he ‘got a sense of his presence and this determined the nature of the portrait: quiet and strong. I usually work in a very liberal, gestural way but this time I built up the image quietly and slowly with many glazes in an attempt to capture the beautiful quality of his skin. I worked on it for over a month, mostly while listening to his music. I made sure to read the lyrics and understand the meaning of each song. The whole process became quite an emotional experience.’ Maestri’s entries were rejected for the Archibald Prize exhibition eight consecutive times before this portrait of Dr Yunupingu took out the prize for 2009.
Gift of the artist 2011
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2011.50
More about the artist and subject
Magazine article, Portrait 41
Guy Maestri’s portrait of the musician was conceived after the artist saw G Yunupingu perform in Sydney on New Year’s Eve 2008.
Permanent collection catalogue
On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.