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My Favourite Australian

by Christine Clark, 1 December 2009

The Australian public was invited in 2008 to vote for their favourite Australian.  After the votes were tallied an exhibition of the top-ten Popular Australians and the top-twenty unsung heroes was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery.

Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi
Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi

Following the success of ABC TV’s My Favourite Book, My Favourite Album and My Favourite Film, this year the public was invited to vote for their favourite Australian in two categories: popular and unsung hero.

Fundamental to the project is the idea that Australians nominate the people whose portraits would comprise the first exhibition that visitors to the new National Portrait Gallery would see. For the Popular category voters choose from the public sphere and for the Unsung Hero category Australians chose inspirational figures in their lives. After the votes were tallied Australian artists and filmmakers created short duration moving image portraits of the top-ten Popular Australians and the top-twenty unsung heroes.

In the Popular Australian category, statesmen had by far the largest representation; Sir William Deane, Gough Whitlam, John Howard and Bob Brown are all in the top ten. There is also this country’s favourite gardener, Peter Cundall, much-loved entertainers, Olivia Newton-John and John Farnham, and well respected contributors to public life such as the Reverend Tim Costello and the late Fred Hollows. The late Johnny Warren, Socceroo and passionate football advocate, was the only sporting figure in the top ten.

The range of nominations in the Unsung Hero category shows that there isn’t a distinct notion of what constitutes a local hero and it aptly demonstrates the wide spectrum of inspirational Australians who make up our communities. People from all parts of Australia nominated their heroes; some knew them well – as patients, students, colleagues, friends and family – while others admired their achievements from afar.

A characteristic of all the Unsung Heroes is that they have had a significant impact on the lives of others with many of them unstintingly dedicating their lives to a specific cause. There are teaching and medical professionals, Indigenous leaders and people who work tirelessly to help others both in Australia and overseas as well as those whose passion is the environment and animal welfare. For example, in the Unsung Hero category there is music teacher David Turner who is regarded by his nominator, a former student, as ‘an amazing and inspiring teacher whose passion for music and people has changed the lives of hundreds of children and adults in Burnie’. While Bungal (David) Mowaljarlai, a Ngarinyin Elder who passed away eleven years ago, was seen as an hero for his life’s work to bring traditional Indigenous knowledge into non-Indigenous people’s lives: ‘His unrelenting commitment to educating Whitefellas in Ngarinyin knowledge saw him take hundreds of people, including many eminent Australians to his Kimberley homelands for Bush University.’

Other Unsung Heroes include wildlife rescuer Ruth Lewis, Stasia ‘the soup lady’ Dobrowski and human rights advocate Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi. Ruth Lewis is the President of the Ipswich Koala Protection Society and over the past twenty years has been rescuing koalas and other wildlife in and around Ipswich. She rears orphaned koalas, kangaroos and wallabies at home, campaigns for local wildlife protection and delivers education programs on these issues. In Canberra’s city centre on any Friday night you are likely to see another unsung hero, Stasia Dobrowski. Affectionately known as ‘the soup lady’, Stasia has provided hot soup, bread, drinks, clothes and blankets to the needy of Canberra since 1979. Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi has been working for Burmese human rights, particularly for women, over many years. Her nominator wrote of her colleague and friend: ‘Spend enough time with Mar and you soon realise you can change the world. She is small in stature but has an enormous passion for people and in raising awareness about human rights in Burma. Mar is a gentle reminder of how we can use our liberty to help others, and that we can do it with good will, a warm heart and a smile.’

Two of the Unsung Heroes were nominated for their dedication to their own families. There were numerous nominations for Terry Hicks, David Hicks’s father, with many members of the public greatly admiring Terry’s unconditional love for his son. There is also ninety-four-year old North Queensland Great Grandmother, Venera De Domenico who is the treasured matriarch of an eighty-eight-strong family. Nominated by her granddaughter, she was recognised for instilling her love of family, friends, food and community in so many.

Aside from being an exhibition of remarkable Australians and their achievements, My Favourite Australian is an opportunity for the National Portrait Gallery to present the work of nineteen media artists and filmmakers. Artistic styles and interests were carefully considered for each artist–subject pairing. However, the makers were given complete independence to develop their creative concepts, working closely with their subject and their families and close supporters or drawing on archival footage. The approach has produced a wonderfully engaging and diverse range of portraits. Bruce Petty’s moving caricature of Gough Whitlam’s life’s story, for instance, will be seen alongside remix artists, Soda_Jerk’s, portrait of Olivia Newton-John which draws completely on 1970s and 1980s archival material, together with other portraits that largely make use of live footage of their subjects.