National Portrait Gallery, Canberra: A spectacular new collection of famous Australian faces

Twenty famous faces are swivelling heads in Canberra. New portraits of notable individuals, drawn from the fields of music, sport, business and more are hanging together in a large space within the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).

The gallery unveiled the collection, titled 20/20, in October. The massive undertaking, which involved a three-way matching of subjects, artists and donors, was a milestone 20th-birthday project aimed at filling gaps in the gallery's collection of 2700 portraits of people who have contributed to Australian life. Almost $500,000 of private money brought the bold plan to life over 18 months.

That might seem like a luxurious amount of time – but it wasn't, not when you consider the hectic schedules of these subjects and artists. Former Fairfax photographer Narelle Autio, for instance, was paired with Olympic cyclist Anna Meares. The shoot, says Meares, "was really quite easy but the timing of it wasn't because we had to fit my schedule with Narelle's schedule, the weather of Adelaide winter and permission for private property [the shoot took place at a spot near Murray Bridge]. It started to get quite late and close to the deadline."

Meares had a strong idea of how she wanted to be portrayed. She's been photographed many times "but it's always been in a studio set or sport-orientated ... I wanted to present myself in the place where I feel I'm at now, which is more embracing the woman that I am, learning about the life I want to lead now and understanding that sport was a part of my life, it didn't own my life," she says. "I wanted to present something a little bit different to what people would expect." So instead of Lycra, she's in a white dress.

The new works are a mix of photographs and paintings. LA-based Australian photographer John Tsiavis was commissioned twice. To see why he's a gallery favourite – his portraits of actors Chris Lilley and Bud Tingwell and author Christos Tsiolkas are already in the collection – stand in front of his image of actor Jacki Weaver, who looks as fierce as a lioness.

Weaver lives near Tsiavis, who had seen her at work on the set of Animal Kingdom. "I remember the power of her performance," he says of Weaver, who received an Oscar nomination for her role. "It's a difficult thing to shoot an actor as themselves … the challenge was to portray her as the powerful person she is but not in character." While Weaver looks tough, he also wanted her vulnerability to shine through.

Tsiavis also shot Tan Le, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is working on technology that might one day be able to read the human mind. "I did a lot of research into how Asian women are shot and it's important for me to make them look powerful because Tan is a badass," Tsiavis says. "It's such a responsibility to depict these people properly and to give them the respect. But you've got to do it together – that's where the magic happens."

Tsiavis called upon collaborators to help create the portrait's high-tech layers that not only reflect viewers but force them to stand directly in front of the life-size image to bring it into focus. As the project came together, Tsiavis realised he needed a second shoot with Le to make her portrait more impactful. "That was embarrassing," he says. "I've never not nailed it the first time." The pair, who are the same age and went to the same Melbourne high school, made the most of their follow-up encounter, enjoying champagne and pizza.

Actor and singer Jessica Mauboy also loosened up during her shoot with David Rosetzky in Melbourne. "It was just us in the room without someone breathing down our necks and saying, 'You have a timeline' or 'You've got to get on the next flight'," she says. "I remember feeling just a little bit more free – I was almost discovering myself again without the other stuff. I didn't have a hair team, a make-up team, a styling team – David and I wanted something that was purely just us." Rosetzky shot 14 rolls of film, running them through his camera twice to see what the double exposures created.

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While Mauboy's energetic portrait can be seen from across the room, others require you to come closer. Champion axeman David Foster is a big bloke – he stands 195 centimetres tall – but his small-scale portrait demands close inspection. Foster says artist Jacqui Stockdale "wanted people to walk up to me and actually have a look". He's depicted standing beneath a tree in a wood-chopping arena where four generations of Fosters have wood-chopped near his hometown of Devonport, Tasmania. Stockdale says the viewer "may question whether the work is a painting or a photograph or both".

When it came to matching artists with subjects for the 20/20 exhibition, the NPG's outgoing director, Angus Trumble, says: "We tried to think of ways in which the combination will produce something that's bigger than the sum of its parts."

Certainly, that kind of creativity is paying off. Australia's national collecting institutions are a major drawcard, clocking up more than 10.7 million visits over 2016-17. The ACT's cluster of cultural institutions also attracts overseas visitors – in 2017, 69 per cent of the territory's 240,000-plus international visitors came for the arts.

Katrina Lobley was a guest of the National Portrait Gallery.

MORE MUST-SEE PORTRAITS

JULIA GILLARD

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard's official portrait was unveiled at Parliament House in October. Artist Vincent Fantauzzo executed the image in his trademark photo-realist style,  which has won him four Archibald People's Choice awards over the years. Ask at the information desk for directions to the picture, hanging near the main committee room. See aph.gov.au

NED KELLY

The National Gallery of Australia normally displays Sidney Nolan's astonishing Ned Kelly series but it's currently roaming the country and is at the Murray Art Museum Albury until February 17, 2019. See mamalbury.com.au

WOMEN AND WAR

Within the Australian War Memorial, look for Ben Quilty's poignant portraits of three women – Elle-Lou Diddams, Elvi Wood and Leesa Kwok – whose lives were turned upside down by the loss or injury of a loved one in the Afghanistan War. See awm.gov.au

UNCLES AND AUNTIES

The State Library of NSW unveiled a $22 million transformation in October – among the highlights is a "salon hang" of paintings from the vaults as well as Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones' enthralling multimedia exhibition, Sydney Elders. Uncle Chicka, Aunty Esme, Aunty Sandra and Uncle Dennis explain how the Eora nation's traditions survive and thrive. See sl.nsw.gov.au

LONG-TIME LOCALS

Victoria's Wimmera Mallee region is home to the 200-kilometre-long Silo Art Trail, billed as Australia's largest outdoor gallery. The trail, conceived in 2016 and executed by notable artists such as Fintan Magee and Adnate, features large-scale murals on grain silos in six towns. In Lascelles, the silos feature Rone's portraits of local farming couple Geoff and Merrilyn Horman. See siloarttrail.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/canberra

VISIT

20/20 is at the National Portrait Gallery until February 10, 2019. Entry is free. See npg.gov.au

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