Australian actress, dual Oscar nominee and established Hollywood star Jacki Weaver depicted as a roaring "lioness". Olympic basketballer and coach of the Sydney Kings Andrew Gaze is caught with a candid expression that raises more questions than it answers; while our beloved Eurovision songstress, actress Jessica Mauboy, is captured in an arresting double exposure that is part quiet vulnerability, part drama.

They are three of Australia’s most celebrated personalities, all experts in their fields, and each has found a permanent home in Canberra in surprising, witty and insightful portraits captured by a range of Australia’s top artists.

The portraits of Weaver, Gaze and Mauboy form part of a new exhibition, 20/20: celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions on display at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). They are joined by international champion woodchopper David Foster; 2018 Australian of the Year and quantum physicist Michelle Simmons; Olympic cyclist Anna Meares; Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin; and Australia’s most decorated former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, to name a few.

Two decades since the gallery opened in Old Parliament House – before moving a decade later to its current home on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin – the NPG is giving itself and the nation a generous birthday present: 20 brand spanking new portraits for its permanent collection.

“We wanted a list of 20 who would shine a spotlight on Australian society today, taking into account a suitable spread of geography, age, walks of life and occupations, and distinctions ranging over sport, music, dance, poetry, business and industry. We also wanted to be mindful of gender balance and [capture] the ethnic diversity of the country,” says NPG director Angus Trumble.

The list of potential sitters was selected by the board, in consultation with Trumble, and paired with artists prepared to put their minds and expertise to the daunting task of quickly turning around a portrait to be seen by the nation. While commissioning portraits of notable Australians is the NPG’s bread and butter, Trumble says the breadth of works needed in a relatively short period of time – 18 months – made logistics challenging.

“[Some] commissions take much longer than others, they can extend over a few years, so we may commission up to five on the go but rarely more than that. So the idea of undertaking 20 at once was pretty awesome,” he says.

Mauboy says working with photographer David Rosetzky was unlike anything she has experienced before. “Being in such a naked space where it almost felt like a blank canvas … was a raw experience where I got to be myself. It was emotionally moving and now, seeing it physically, I’m quite choked up,” she says. “This is the raw me.”

Rather than fusty old paintings of subjects glaring solemnly at the viewer, the NPG approached artists whose work reflects a diverse range of media, creating a lively suite of artworks.

Imants Tillers’s portrait of novelist, playwright and librettist Louis Nowra – created on 64 canvas boards with synthetic polymer and gouache – is the antithesis of the stereotypical portrait. Sarah Rhodes has used photography to capture former Wallaby legend Tony Shaw; while Deidre But-Husaim depicts celebrated author (Maestro, Wish) and medical doctor Peter Goldsworthy sitting contemplatively at his desk – viewed from behind no less – with oil on canvas. 
Artists weren’t restricted by size, and the 20 portraits range from the very large – two metres by 1.5 metres of former rugby league great Mal Meninga, for example – to the very small. “There’s practically every conceivable approach to the representation of a person,” Trumble says. “It’s very satisfactory to see how dynamic a genre it is at the moment.”

He cites George Fetting’s photograph of Gaze, shot on a basketball court. “One thing about compelling portraits is they might take someone who people feel they know and show them another side to that person. This portrait gives Andrew Gaze a slightly contemplative but also slightly dark character, which isn’t what I think you’d expect.”

A favourite is LA-based photographer John Tsiavis’s portrait of Weaver. “Jacki Weaver has been part of Australian life for decades and the fact she’s now gone international and done such great work in the US, at a time when there’s a great deal of discussion about roles for older women tending to be a problematic, is absolutely fantastic. It’s a very compelling image.”

Trumble is proud all 20 portraits were funded by philanthropic contributions. “It hasn’t cost the taxpayer a penny,” he says, smiling.

The new portraits will now form part of the NPG’s 3500-strong collection, which includes portraits of Nick Cave, Mick Fanning, Carla Zampatti and Cathy Freeman, among others.

“One of the reasons we’ve managed to prevent our collection seeming fusty is that from the beginning we’ve tried not to get stuck in a narrow definition of portraiture but to get artists who’ve never tackled it before. Almost invariably they come up with something amazing.”

20/20: celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra from October 20 to February 10, 2019.