David Gulpilil (Gurlpiril is linguistically correct though he is sometimes credited as David Gumpilil) (b. 1 July 1953), is an indigenous Australian traditional dancer and actor. He is a Yolngu man of Mandhalpuyngu language group.
His first starring role was Walkabout.
A portrait of David Gulpilil by Craig Ruddy won the 2004 Archibald Prize, Australia's best known art prize.
As a young boy, David Gulpilil was an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. Unlike many indigenous people of his generation, Gulpilil spent his childhood in the bush, outside the range of Anglo-Australian influences. There, he received a traditional upbringing in the care of his family. He attended the mission school at Maningrida in Australia's North East Arnhem Land. When he came of age, Gulpilil was initiated into the Mandhalpuyngu tribal group. His skin group totemic animal is the eagle and his homeland is Marwuyu. After appearing in his first film, he added English to several tribal languages in which he was already fluent.
Gulpilil's extraordinary skill as a tribal dancer caught the attention of British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who had come to Maningrida scouting locations for a forthcoming film. Roeg promptly cast the fifteen year old unknown to play a principal role in his internationally acclaimed motion picture Walkabout, which first screened in 1970. Gulpilil's on-screen charisma was such that he became an instant celebrity. He travelled to distant lands, mingled with famous people and was presented to heads of state. During these travels to promote the film, he met and was impressed with John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali, and Bruce Lee.
After his high profile performance in Walkabout, Gulpilil went on to appear in many more films and television productions.
Perhaps the most renowned traditional dancer in his country, he has organized troupes of dancers and musicians and has performed at festivals throughout Australia including the prestigious Darwin Australia Day Eisteddfod dance competition, which he won four times.
In addition to his career in dance, music, film and television, Gulpilil is also an acclaimed storyteller. He has written the text for two volumes of children's stories based on Yolngu beliefs. These books also feature photographs and drawings by Australian artists and convey Gulpilil's reverence for the landscape, people and traditional culture of his homeland. Gulpilil's latest artistic triumph is his appearance in an autobiographical stage production in March 2004 at the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2004.
During his career, Gulpilil has encountered racism and discrimination at the hands of some of the agencies and individuals that have employed him. His talent as a dancer and film actor has proved lucrative to others, yet he himself has failed to receive financial compensation equal to that of other featured players. For instance, he played a substantial speaking (and dancing) role in the film Crocodile Dundee but he was only paid $10,000 total for his work. This film went on to earn millions in worldwide distribution and is still bringing in cash for its producers.
On July 9, 2006, Gulpilil was staying at the home of Vaughan Williams in Darwin, when an argument started over his drinking. (Williams' home had a "no alcohol policy".) Williams asked Gulpilil, his wife and their friend (referred to as "JJ") to leave his home. During the argument, Williams and his friend allegedly armed themselves with a totem pole and a garden hoe. In response, Gulpilil produced a machete.
Nobody was hurt in the altercation, however Gulpilil was charged with carrying an offensive weapon. On January 10, 2007, he was found not guilty, as the machete was deemed to be for cultural use. The magistrate found:
The defendant is an artist and a carver. He used the machete to carve didgeridoos, totem poles and strip stringy bark for paintings, There is also evidence he used it to help him build shelters while out bush, like he had done shortly before arriving in Darwin.
On March 30, 2007, a Darwin magistrate imposed a 12-month domestic violence order against Gulpilil over an alleged incident which took place against his wife on December 28, 2006. Gulpilil has been ordered not to "assault or threaten to assault Miriam Ashley directly or indirectly", and to stay away from her while drinking.
At a conference in Adelaide in the summer of 2000, Gulpilil performed traditional dances and shared his recovery story with hundreds of indigenous young people. He continues to provide much-needed mentorship to them, while lending his support to social and political causes such as the pursuit of tribal land claims for indigenous people. He joins other Australian artists in calling for government recognition of and compensation for the suffering of the "Stolen Generation" - children of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage who were forcibly removed from their indigenous families and placed in mission schools or with white adoptive parents far from their kin and homelands.
A documentary about his life, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, was aired on ABC in 2003. The title comes from a quote by Gulpilil: “We are all one blood. No matter where we are from, we are all one blood, the same”.
Gulpilil's latest film, Ten Canoes, won the Cannes Special Jury Prize award at the 2006 Cannes Festival. The prize-winning, low-budget film, based on 1,000-year-old traditional story of misplaced love and revenge, features non-professional indigenous actors speaking their local dialect. Gulpilil collaborated with the director, Rolf de Heer, urging him to make the film, and although he ultimately withdrew from a central role in the project for "complex reasons," Gulpilil also provided the voice of the storyteller for the film. De Heer directed Gulpilil in another film, The Tracker (2002).