Kevin Gilbert (author)

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Kevin Gilbert
Born (1933-07-10)10 July 1933
Condobolin, New South Wales
Died 1 April 1993(1993-04-01) (aged 59)
Occupation Writer, poet
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.

Background and early life[edit]

Kevin Gilbert was the youngest of eight children born to an English/Irish father and an Aboriginal mother.[1] He was born into the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations in Condobolin, New South Wales and at age seven he and his siblings were orphaned. was raised by his eldest sisters and on an Aboriginal reserve. He left school at the age of thirteen and picked up various seasonal and short-term itinerant jobs.[1] In 1956 Gilbert married a white European woman and they had two children; the following year he picked up a gun and murdered her during an argument.[1]

"Then I married a European girl. We had two children. There were fights and poverty and jealousy. It ultimately led to a brawl in the middle of the night alongside some country road. I was pissed, she was tired and despairing and grabbed a rifle..."

— Gilbert in his autobiographical novel, Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert, (1977), p. 243

Gilbert was committed to a life sentence for her murder and was eventually granted parole in 1971.


The Cherry Pickers[edit]

While in prison Gilbert studied printmaking and took up writing. In 1968 he started to pen the play The Cherry Pickers, which was smuggled out of gaol 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 play is significant that it was the first play written in English by an Aboriginal and also the first play to be performed entirely by an Aboriginal cast.[1] 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 1971 and in Redfern, Sydney in 1972[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

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.[citation needed]


From 1972 onwards Gilbert was active in numerous Aboriginal human rights causes and most notably in establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the Old Parliament House in Canberra and is known for embracing the term 'black'.[citation needed]

In the leadup to Australia's bi-centenary celebrations, Gilbert chaired the Treaty '88 campaign for a treaty enshrining Aboriginal rights and sovereignty.[citation needed]

Other writing[edit]

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.

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 which was about the Aboriginal people 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.[4] 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.[2]

In 1988 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.[citation needed] Gilbert continued writing and exhibiting his artwork.

Gilbert died in 1993, aged 59, survived by six children and grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. In 2014 the first of Gilbert's great-great grandchildren had arrived.

Published works[edit]

  • Bernard Hames Collection (1968). The Cherry Pickers: The first written Aboriginal play. Burrambinga Books (published 1988). ISBN 978-0-9588019-0-4. 
  • The Gods Look Down. Self (published 1970). 1969. 
  • Ghosts in Cell Ten. Self (published 1970). 1969. 
  • The Blush of Birds. Self (published 1970). 1969. 
  • Eternally Eve. Self (published 1970). 1969. 
  • Evening of Fear. Self. 1970. 
  • Everyman Should Care. Self. 1970. 
  • Australia Council Literature Board (1988). Gilbert, Kevin, ed. Inside Black Australia: an anthology of Aboriginal poetry. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-011126-2. 
For children
  • with Williams, Eleanor (photographer) (1992). Child's dreaming. Hyland House. ISBN 978-0-947062-97-2. 
  • with Williams, Eleanor (photographer) (1994). Me and Mary Kangaroo. Ringwood, Victoria: Viking Australia. ISBN 978-0-670-85284-0. 


  1. ^ a b c d e McMillan, Pauline (June 1995). "Kevin Gilbert and Living Black [Truncated version of a longer essay based on the Kevin Gilbert Manuscript Collection held at the National Library of Australia.]" (PDF). Journal of Australian Studies. The Koori History website. pp. 1–14. ISSN 1444-3058. Retrieved 28 December 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Eckersley, M. (2009). Drama from the Rim. Melbourne: Drama Victoria. p. 8. 
  3. ^ Gilbert, K. (1988). The Cherry Pickers. Canberra: Burrambinga Books. p. 3. 
  4. ^ Gilbert, K. (1970). The Gods Look Down and Other Sketches. Sydney: Self-published. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Faulkner, Samantha (May 2013). "I do have a belief : Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) art retrospective". Art Monthly Australia. 259: 65–67. 

External links[edit]