Who do you see in the above painting? In 1993, Tony Abbott saw then-Prime Minister Paul Keating in the headless figure (because “he doesn’t have a clue how to solve Australia’s problems”), former Liberal party leader John Hewson as the person with the umbrella (“he’ll never get wet even if the rest of us drown”) and a typical Aussie sitting “bemusedly” in the middle, confused by what Abbott described as a country in turmoil.

Others saw Kerry Packer in the blue figure, Ernie Dingo in the middle, and Ita Buttrose holding the umbrella. Indigenous owners of the land around Uluru saw grandparents, parents and children.

Three Well Known Australians by Sydney artist Martin Shaw has been travelling around Australia since 1983. In a kind of national, ongoing Rorschach test, Shaw asks members of the public to write down their guesses of who the figures represent.

“I was working in market research, where you ask people their age, gender, where they’re from, occupation,” Shaw told Broadsheet. “The painting was created to let people use their imagination, and to give a picture of who they are, based on their guesses.”

The painting visits Australian states and territories in cycles. The last time it was in Sydney was 2009, and before that 1999 and 1989. It’s been displayed in 210 venues since its creation, and a yearbook is sent along with the painting to each city or region so locals can make suggestions. The guesses change depending on the individual, the area, the political climate and the celebrities of the day. The yearbooks are intended to be a portrait of Australia in the same way that the painting is meant to portray well-known Australians.

Exhibited with the artwork are 240 letters, written between 1991 and 2009, detailing the scribes’ opinions on the work. Shaw, who hasn’t painted a piece since he created this one, won’t be drawn on whether anyone has ever gotten it right – “I can’t tell you that”, he says.

He hopes the painting will tour for many generations to come, with no foreseeable end to its decades-long trip around Australia.

Three Well Known Australians will be exhibited at Leichhardt Library until February 27, before moving to other venues in Kings Cross, Blacktown, Windsor, Hornsby and Mona Vale. It will head up to Brisbane in 2020.

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