With his extraordinary voice and hauntingly beautiful album Gurrumul, Indigenous singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu has become something of a cultural phenomenon over the last year.
Born blind, the gifted musician leads a traditional lifestyle on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land and sings in his native Yolngu language, but his fame is spreading the world. He recently won two coveted ARIA Awards among others and was named NT Australian of the Year for 2008.
Guy Maestri saw Gurrumul live on New Year’s Eve last year and says it was ‘truly, an unforgettable experience. Word had been going around all day and the rumours were true – people really were moved to tears.’
Believing that this ‘inspiring, amazing man’ would be an ideal subject for a portrait, Maestri managed to track Gurrumul down in Darwin with the help of a friend in the music industry only to discover that he was flying to New York the following weekend.
Offered a 40-minute window of opportunity to meet him early one Saturday morning at Sydney airport, Maestri seized it. ‘I was introduced to Gurrumul by Michael Hohnen, his bass player, record producer and close friend, who explained to him about the Archibald and why I wanted to paint him.’
Maestri did lots of sketches and studied Gurrumul’s face intently. ‘More importantly, I 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.’
Born in Mudgee, NSW in 1974, Maestri completed a Bachelor of Fine Art (Hons) in painting at the National Art School, Darlinghurst in 2003. This painting is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, with the title Dr G Yunupingu.