Aboriginal musician portrait wins Australia art prize

Fri Mar 6, 2009 4:00am EST
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By Pauline Askin

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - A painting of blind, award-winning Aboriginal musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, renowned for playing the guitar upside-down, won Australia's top art prize for portraiture on Friday.

Artist Guy Maestri said the painting was inspired by watching Yunupingu perform live on New Year's Eve last year, an experience he described as "unforgettable."

"I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack," Maestri said while accepting his A$50,000 ($US32,000) Archibald Prize for the oil-on-linen painting, a close-up of the singer's face.

Born blind, Yunupingu leads a traditional lifestyle on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory of Australia and sings in his native Yolngu language.

Yunupingu taught himself to play guitar after hearing the instrument at his local church. Being left-handed, and with the only available guitar strung for right-handers, he learned to play with it upside-down, something he still does today.

"I'm very proud that he asked me to paint my portrait and I'm very pleased for his success," Yunupingu said in a statement that Maestri read on his behalf at the prize-giving ceremony.

"I would also like to tell everyone that I didn't win this money, so please don't call me asking for some of it," he joked.

The 2008 Archibald Prize was awarded to artist Vincent Fantauzzo for his portrait of Heath Ledger, which was painted shortly before the Australian actor died in January that year.

There were 708 entries this year for the Archibald, which is judged by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)