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2019 National Indigenous Arts Awards – Adrian Collette AM

Speeches and Opinions
May 29, 2019

Good evening, everyone.

It is my privilege to meet with you today on land where people have gathered to share art, culture and knowledge for more than 60,000 years.

I would like to add my acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples present this evening, and Elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to thank you, Yvonne Weldon, for your warm welcome and acknowledge colleagues Wesley Enoch and Lee-Ann Buckskin.

I am delighted to welcome you all to the 12th annual National Indigenous Arts Awards, celebrating artistic excellence and cultural leadership.

Tonight we will present the prestigious Red Ochre Awards for outstanding lifetime achievement; the Dreaming Award for recognition of an emerging artist; and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fellowship that supports the creation of a major work by an artist.

This is an outstanding year because in addition to presenting these awards, tonight we will also celebrate the First Nations artists who are the recipients of the Australia Council Fellowships and the Australia Council Awards. Altogether nine artists will be honoured in this significant celebration of First Nations arts and culture.

In the speech notes I was given, crafted to celebrate the achievements of the artists we honour this evening, I read this: ‘First Nations peoples’ profound knowledge and deep connections to the land we inhabit is transmitted and embodied in language, art, dance, songs, stories and ceremony. These uniquely Australian stories are at the heart of Australia’s history and cultural identity. First Nations cultures are central to Australia’s national identity.

How I wish we could make that claim with hand on heart. But we simply can’t, YET!  I can’t but feel we fall short of this heroic claim. I hope that First Nations centrality to Australia’s national identity is something we can confidently claim one day, for all Australians will benefit tremendously when this is the case. Non-indigenous Australians have much to learn from the collective knowledge of tens of thousands of centuries of sustained culture. And such an aspiration holds even greater promise; it could help build what Rhoda Roberts (one of the artists we will honour this evening) has called ‘our cultural fibre’ – our way of responding positively to the many cultures that now make up Australia’s contemporary society. This is such an exciting and energising prospect!

On a good day I believe that the ‘great forgetting’ is easing; that through the work of fine indigenous artists (like those we honour this evening), or researchers and academics, or through the rigour of writers like Bruce Pascoe or Bill Gammage or Alexis Wright – we are finding a way of articulating both the importance and the gift of first nations ways of knowing.

And I would certainly argue that we won’t arrive at a plausible national identity without understanding the centrality of indigenous cultures. On a good day (like this one!) I am persuaded by Bruce Pascoe’s prediction that ‘…it seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry we refuse to say thanks.’

And this, I think, is why our awards this evening – sincere acts of recognition – are not only celebratory but critically important. Each is a step along the way…at least to say ‘Thanks!’

The Australia Council is committed to supporting First Nations artists to develop their practice – and to share these stories and cultural knowledge with the next generation.

Advocacy and support of indigenous art was enshrined in the very purposes of the Australian Council when it was established in 1964. It was central to our emerging ambitions then; it is central to our purpose still. There is never enough money and there needs to be greater investment; but here is an area where I think our support is making a difference. And I thank, in particular, the work of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts team, led by Lydia Miller, and the essential guidance of our ATSIA panel, chaired by Wesley Enoch.

When you become CEO of Australia’s principal arts funding and advisory body you are constantly reminded of the intrinsic role of arts and culture in the lives of all Australians. Our research tells us that that nine in ten Australians believe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts are an important part of Australian culture and this is a call to action – the people are already there, and policy needs to catch up.

As our national advisory body for the arts it’s imperative that we work harder still to ensure that we deliver funding and programming to support First Nations artists now, and into the future.

We are also committed to encouraging public-private partnerships in the arts. In 2017 a second Red Ochre award was introduced to ensure both a male and female recipient are honoured each year. Initially supported through donations from the Australia Council staff and Board under its workplace giving program, we are now committed to presenting two Red Ochre awards each year.

You will see that we have created new physical awards that will be presented this evening. These are artworks in themselves, created by artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello in her Canberra studio. Drawing inspiration from the Australian landscape, each piece has been individually crafted to embody the award that each represents.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to offer my congratulations to this year’s remarkable recipients. Thank you for enriching our lives.

It is now my great pleasure to hand back to Wesley, as we begin the presentation of the awards.

Adrian Collette AM