This is the speech that my good mate–and father to my god-daughter Siena Mayutu–Will Stubbs will deliver on the occasion of receiving the Australia Council Visual Arts Award for Advocacy, which he will be awarded at a ceremony in Sydney this evening. Will also told me that he is a rather nervous public speaker (something that I doubt) and that what you see below is likely to bear little relation to what he’ll say to the gathered crowd tonight.

Ladies and Gentleman,

I would like to start by thanking the Australia Council for the Arts, Board members and staff. I am so proud to have my parents and my two sisters and their families here. My father is a Walkely Award winning journalist and author and my mother a senior political advisor to the Dunstan and Goss governments.

I literally would not be here if I had not married above my station. To the beautiful and talented Principal of Yirrkala School, author, academic and Yothu Yindi backing singer, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr. Her family is one of the great dynasties of Australia and I am so happy that my daughter Siena shows all of that talent already.

Djambawa Marawili explained to me many years ago that the land is complete. It has all that it needs for its continuation and sustenance. But it cannot express itself. It cannot sing, paint and dance its’ identity. And so it has grown a tongue. That tongue is the Yolŋu. The Indigenous people of Australia. They exist to articulate the land. That is their reason for existence.

In many parts of the land that tongue has been cut out but it does not mean that the land has lost its identity. It has just been muted. I think we all know what those places feel like.

The thrill of living in a place where the land can still be heard is reward enough and so it feels odd to receive any further acknowledgment. But I accept this acknowledgment with gratitude on behalf of those elders who had the patience to correct my mistakes and the compassion to forgive my faults. Yolŋu culture is wise and firmly founded. I have had the benefit of this.

My life is transformed by this gift.

Like the rotary engine or the cochlear ear, art centres are a uniquely Australia invention. It is right that they should be celebrated. We should be proud of them.

And they are always a collaborative enterprise. I am just one of many people who have contributed.

In countless remote Indigenous art centres a legion of people have given their life’s energy to the promotion of this national project. So this Award is like The Tomb of the Unknown Art Centre co-ordinator. It is for all my many colleagues who have struggled to create and sustain these entities over many decades in challenging conditions usually without recognition. As the Stephen Bradbury of art co-ordinators I feel like Pharlap’s jockey. I am being rewarded for not having fallen off.

I have learnt from each and every artist but some of my special heroes are Dr. Gawirrin Gumana AO, Djambawa Marawili AM, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Baluka Maymuru, Djutjadjutja Mununggurr and Dula Ngurruwuthun.

I wish to specially acknowledge the man who took pity on a bewildered, recently married, criminal lawyer and gave him a job as a bookkeeper twenty years ago, my mentor and friend, Andrew Blake and his wife Dianne, who established the famous Yirrkala Print Space. These days I am so lucky to work with the best art co-ordinator I have ever met Kade McDonald, and his partner Annie Studd.

There is a trajectory in Australian political and intellectual thought that is carrying us towards a true national identity and spirit. It is crucial that Yolŋu thought and philosophy continue to exist strongly for that to occur. We need to celebrate Indigenous wisdom in the hope that some of it can rub off! Through dumb luck I have had the benefit of that and am driven to share it with others who have not been so lucky.

It has been an honour to listen to, and speak up for, the voices of this wonderful country.

Thank you.

Will Stubbs is coordinator at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, NT, and a passionate advocate of Indigenous arts and Australia’s unique arts centres. A former criminal lawyer, Will in 1995 began working with Yolŋu elders and artists, such as Djambawa Marawili AM, Gawirrin Gumana AO and Wanyubi Marika.

The Yirrkala artists have since won 30 major art prizes and exhibited widely and internationally, including Musee du Quai Branly.