Kevin Gilbert (author)
10 July 1933
Condobolin, New South Wales
|Died||1 April 1993|
|Notable works||Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert|
|Notable awards||The National Book Council
Kevin Gilbert (10 July 1933 – 1 April 1993) was a 20th-century Indigenous Australian activist, artist, poet, playwright and printmaker. He is also a past winner of the National Book Council prize for writers.
Kevin Gilbert was born into the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations in Condobolin, New South Wales and was raised by his eldest sister on an Aboriginal reserve. He left school at the age of fourteen and picked up various seasonal and short-term itinerant jobs. In 1957 Gilbert was committed to a life sentence over the killing of his wife during an argument. He was eventually granted parole in 1971.
While in prison Gilbert studied printmaking and took up writing. In 1968 he started to pen the play The Cherry Pickers. "The Cherry Pickers" was smuggled out of jail on toilet paper. It was first workshopped and presented in a reading at the small Mews Theatre in Sydney 'in the open air' with Bob Maza and other Aboriginal actors reading the parts. The critic and publisher Katharine Brisbane, described her response after viewing an early performed reading of "The Cherry Pickers as 'I was overawed with a sense of privilege at being allowed into the domestic life of a people whose privacy had, for so long and for such good reason, been guarded from white eyes'. A more complete moved reading was held in 1970 and 1971 in Sydney and the play was subsequently nominated in 1970 for the Captain Cook Memorial Award.
The play was performed in its full form by Melbourne's Nindethana Theatre Group in 1973 but the play was not published until 1988 when, in the wake of protests against the Bicentennial celebrations of European colonisation of Australia, it became a symbol of Aboriginal protest. Gilbert is often billed as the 'first Aboriginal playwright to have his work performed'. Gilbert's play is based on the stories and experiences of itinerant workers and it deals with, as Gilbert puts it in an introduction to the play written in 1969: ... spiritual searching and loss, my people pushed into refugee situations, desocialised if you like'.
The play's narrative mixes traditional creation myths, rituals, political diatribes, clever dialogue and humour. It is through this humour that Gilbert explores alcoholism, violence and spiritual and cultural issues. Gilbert also exhibited his artwork at the Arts Council Gallery in Sydney in 1970, in an exhibition organised by the Australia Council.
From 1972 onwards Gilbert was active in numerous Aboriginal human rights causes and most notably in establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at (old) Parliament house in Canberra and is known for embracing the term 'Black'. He also authored 'Because a White Man'll Never Do It' in 1973. In 1978, the National Book Council presented him its annual book award for his book 'Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert'. The book included interviews with various black commentators of the day including the late musician and dancer Robert Jabanungga.
Gilbert's career as a playwright did not start and end with "The Cherry Pickers". In 1972, another play by Gilbert, "The Gods Look Down", was produced at the Wayside Theatre, a small alternative theatre in Sydney. The production, directed by Barry Donnelly, can best be described as a dance drama. Gilbert's notes for the program, describe it as 'an emotional fantasy using subconsciously emotive scenes based on modern spiritual drift and identity loss, which is actually the present search for a spiritual force or a god'. The play is poetic and semi-abstract and moves from dialogue accompanied by movement to movement-based explorations of love and sexuality.
Along with his political work in the 1970s, Gilbert wrote a number of plays and sketches, including "Ghosts in Cell Ten", "The Blush of Birds", "Eternally Eve", "Evening of Fear", and "Everyman Should Care" (Gilbert 1970). Many of these seem to have never been staged but stylistically seem to preempt much of the work of indigenous writers and practitioners of the 1990s such as Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman (Eckersley 2009).
In the leadup to Australia's bi-centenary celebrations, Gilbert chaired the Treaty '88 campaign for a treaty enshrining Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. In that year he was awarded the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Human Rights Award for Literature for editing the Aboriginal poetry anthology Inside Black Australia. He returned the medal citing the ongoing injustice and suffering of his people. Gilbert continued writing and exhibiting his artwork.
Kevin Gilbert died in 1993. He is survived by six children and numerous grand and great-grandchildren.
Poetry for his people
Particularly in his early verse, Gilbert uses the poetry as an apologia in respect to his own life whilst challenging the morality of the wider society.
- "The Cherry Pickers: First written Aboriginal play" (Written 1968, Published Burrambinga Books, 1978 )
- "The Gods Look Down" (Written 1969, Self-published 1970)
- "Ghosts in Cell Ten"(Written 1969, Self-published 1970)
- "The Blush of Birds"(Written 1969, Self-Published 1970)
- "Eternally Eve" (Written 1969, Self-Published 1970 )
- "Evening of Fear" (Written 1970, Self-Published 1970)
- "Everyman Should Care" (Written 1970, Self-Published 1970)
- People are Legends (UQP, 1978)
- Black from the Edge (Hyland House, 1994)
- "The Blackside: People Are Legends and other poems" (Hyland House, 1990)
- Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert (Penguin 1977)
- Because a White Man'll Never Do It (1973, Harper Collins 1994, Angus & Robertson classic, 2002)
- "Aboriginal Sovereignty: Justice, the Law and Land" (Treaty '88 1987, Burrambinga Books, 1993)
- Inside Black Australia (Poetry Anthology, Penguin Australia 1988)
- "Child's Dreaming" (Hyland House, 1992)
- Me and Mary Kangaroo (Viking Australia 1994 & Penguin Canada 1994)
- Eckersley, M. 2009. Drama from the Rim. Drama Victoria. Melbourne.p8.
- Gilbert, K. 1988. The Cherry Pickers. Burrambinga Books. Canberra.p3.
- Kevin Gilbert at National Gallery of Australia
- Gilbert, K. 1970. The Gods Look Down and Other Sketches. Self-published. Sydney.
- Eckersley, M. 2009. Drama from the Rim. Drama Victoria. Melbourne.
- Kevin John Gilbert home page, has images of his art-work