Friday, May 6, 2011

Tribute to Gulpilil

Gulpilil, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 41x30 cm SOLD


For many years, along with countless other Australians, i have admired the work of Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. This goes all the way back to my young adulthood when i saw his mesmerizing performance in Walkabout (1971). He was just 15 years old. You can see the trailer HERE or the whole movie HERE .

His other 27 film credits include

The TrackerNick Cave's tense and explosive The Proposition (2005) (see a clip HERE);    the eerie The Tracker (2002), such an atmospheric film (see a clip HERE);    the moving The Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)(see a trailer HERE);    the enigmatic and spine tingling The Last Wave  (1977) (see a trailer HERE).
Gulpilil's personal story is a mix of great achievement and an endemic and gnawing sense of loss that corrodes and erodes himself, as well as his people. I don't wish to open up the issues around the historical,  economic, health, legal, and social life of our indigenous Australians.

Suffice it to say, it is a national disgrace, despite the efforts of many according to their lights at the time and today. Western paternalism, materialism,avarice, cruelty and hardness of heart have more than played their parts too. The poverty, life-expectancy, social break-down, and substance abuse among many (though by no means all) Aboriginal communities remains appalling.

So why isn't David living in a swish Sydney habour-side apartment with the millions he has made from his films?  

Firstly because his set of values are not those of Western consumer society. His obligation is to family and tribe. So that is where he chooses to live, even if in fairly squalid conditions.

Secondly, what millions? I can't help feeling he has been stitched up by film companies who appear to sometimes have exploited his talent for a mere retainer. He makes a few thousand. They make the millions plus.

Gulpilil stradles two worlds and can no longer be at home in either of them. That is his tragedy. But that is also the pain that fuels his art. That is the story that is etched on his expressive and majestic face.

David Guliplil is friends with the indigenous Australian band Yothu Yindi . If you wish to peek into the emotional and cultural space Gulpilil inhabits, listen as Western and indigenous culture and language meet in their song One Blood.

"Can you hear it
it's all around you
the beating of heart
waking up the land
the beating of a heart - one blood."

When i listen to this song i hear an ancient people tell me: 
We and the animals are one.
We and the land are one.
We and and all mankind are one.
One blood. All life is one blood.

The painting at the top of this post was commissioned from me for a woman whose Aboriginal heritage led her to deeply admire Gulpilil . She had seen the painting below when it was in an exhibition for sale and had regretted not buying it. So a friend of hers employed me to paint the second one, above, just for her.

Gulpilili, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 41x30 cm SOLD

But this one evolved from a previous version i had painted earlier in 2007, seen below. The hand is featured because i imagined Gulpilil as not only a contemporary celebrity but also as a timeless figure at one with the ancient hand prints and stencils in Aboriginal rock art that i recall seeing in Arnhem Land when i visited the Kakadu rock paintings in caves that had already been inhabited  20,000 years ago.

Gulpilil's Cave, watercolor on paper, 41x30 cm

But even this grew out of an earlier work still. Or maybe better just called a doodle (below) rather than anything as lofty as a 'work'. Early in 2007 i had read an account of David Gulpilil's life. And i remembered him from Walkabout. I had seen some of his dance performance.

And so in a moment of reverie i doodled my first Gulpilil, he in his dreaming, i in mine.

Gulpilil's Dreaming, ink and watercolour on paper, 41x30 cm

Dreaming, or The Dreaming, has a special meaning for Aboriginal people. It is not only a personal and group spiritual communion but also a connection to The Dreamtime. It is not a day-dreaming or wishful thinking but rather an contemplative and meditative insight that produces narratives of totemic power. They dream existence into being.

I believe that as creative artists we should have our Dreaming too.

We should cultivate a numinous place not visible to the naked eye, a place that we strive to visit, to inhabit, and allow to inhabit us.

It is the mission of creative artists to make the Dreaming visible to all humanity so they may know there is more to life than shopping.


  1. All of these incarnations of this portrait are powerful, but the final one is the strongest - in your face portraiture of a strong character. Thanks for sharing his information with us. Here, in the US, there should be the same shame and consideration given to the treatment of Native Americans. Alas, when we claim foul over a football team name or when using an Apache hero like Geronimo to name a terrorist, we are told we are being "too sensitive." And I'm sure the stories of our Native American actors are similiar to David's.

  2. Very interesting reading and amazing portraits, sensitively painted. I learnt a lot about Aboriginal culture. My son brought me back a wonderful painting of Aboriginal art which I love.

    I dream all the time I make sure I get quiet times just to dream my thoughts away, it's very important to let yourself go.

  3. Evening Harry,
    It's a wonderful tribute in paint, with words equally honoring. Those not-be-discussed-here issues are well-known in the U.S., of course.
    It never ceases to amaze just how inhumanely we often treat our fellow humans.
    Great work, Harry.

  4. Me again, Harry,
    I knew David looked familiar, thanks to your superb likeness, so I just took a look at the cast of the movie, "Crocodile Dundee".
    Sure enough, there was his name listed in the principal credits.
    The film still runs here on the telly, quite often in fact, and I almost never miss it. Now it will have special meaning, not just for me, but also for the folks I'll tell about him.
    G'Day Harry

  5. Beautiful portraits and a most thought provoking post. My mind also went immediately to "our" Native-Americans. I like the final sentence in your post. So true.

  6. The first one is the one I like the most. Absolutely amazing!

  7. Thanks Rhonda. Yes, Gulpilil is a very strong human being. Yet it's all taking its toll. He had pneumonia while working in the film "Australia". He has been arrested for being drunk and disorderly on a few occassions (hey, that's almost a qualification in Hollywood). He is looking older than his years. At least native Americans managed to secure a treaty in places. Not so our indigenous Australians who also want a formal treaty.

  8. Thanks Carolann. I can see your dreaming in those wonderful Turneresque paintings of yours of the Suffolk landscape.

  9. Hi Candace. Thanks for dropping by. These are just quick things, a long way short of the magnificent classical sitting of your daughter. I'll never have your draughsmanship, focus or discipline, i'm afraid.

  10. Hi Gary. Yes, it's a complex issue (otherwise it would have a simple solution) which is why i didn't really go into the intricaies of it. The inhmanity also exists on the other side, with family violence and child abuse, and high crime rate. Anglo Australians become afraid. Tourists become afraid. That fear feeds back into a loop of discrimination and avoidance of issues.

    Fortunately there are many articulate and very aware Aboriginal leaders around the country. They don't all agree with each other either, which is probably a healthy sign.

    Meanwhile it's become the vogue to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land before commencing a public lecture or opening a supermarket. A feel-good ritual that serves in place of actually giving some land back or signing a treaty that enshrines some legal rights for a conquered and dispossessed people.

    See, you shouldn't get me going, haha.

    Yes Gulpilil was in Corc Dundee. And the recent movie 'Australia' where Baz had David act out the stereo-type image that we used to have on decorative wall plates in the 1950's.

    Gulpilil is also a dancer of renown. Indeed, that is how he first came to the attention of the movie industry in the 1970's. But i just love the way he moves in various film parts, his voice, his special Oz accent, his expressive face.

    Let's hear it for David Gulpilil! Yeyeeeeeeee!!!

  11. Thanks, Celeste. I know from your previous comments that we of one mind on this.

    Hi Manel. Ah yes, you love tonal drawings that celebrate form, and you do it so well yourself.

  12. Oh Harry, firstly what incredible artwork. All these paintings of David Gulpilil are superb. And secondly, you have brought home so many home truths to all those who listen from all the continents of the world. Those special indigenous people (here they are the San or Bushmen and not the Xhosa or Zulu as everyone imagines) have been so maligned but can still teach us a lesson in being human. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  13. Thanks, Liz. And thanks for adding your South African experience to the mix. It seems to a story repeated in so many 'new world' and post-colonial countries.


  15. Thanks for the encouraging comment, Darel, and welcome to my blog. Love your neo-Picasso work.