Kevin Gilbert (author)

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Kevin Gilbert
Born(1933-07-10)10 July 1933
Condobolin, New South Wales
Died1 April 1993(1993-04-01) (aged 59)
OccupationWriter, poet, activist, artist, playwright and printmaker
Notable worksLiving Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert; Because a white man'll never do it; Aboriginal Sovereignty: justice, the Law and land; The Cherry Pickers; Black from the Edge; The Blackside: People are Legends and Other Poems.
Notable awardsThe National Book Council
Human Rights Award for Literature

Kevin John Gilbert (10 July 1933 – 1 April 1993) was an Aboriginal Australian author, activist, artist, poet, playwright and printmaker. A Wiradjuri man, Gilbert was born on the banks of the Lachlan River in New South Wales.

Gilbert was the first Aboriginal playwright and printmaker. He was an active human rights defender and was involved in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 as well as its re-establishment on a permanent basis in 1992. In 1979 he led the National Aboriginal Government protest on Capital Hill, Canberra. His vision for a continent with integrity led to him being Chair of the "Treaty ’88" Campaign for a sovereign treaty between Aboriginal Nations and Peoples and non-Aboriginal Australians, as a proper foundation for all people living in Australia now. He defined the legal argument for a treaty or treaties and Aboriginal sovereignty in his 1987 work Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice, the Law and Land.[1]

Gilbert won the 1978 National Book Council prize for writers, for Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert (1977).[2]

Background and early life[edit]

Gilbert was the youngest of eight children born to a Wiradjuri mother and an Irish/English father.[3] He was born into the Wiradjuri Nation on the bank of the Kalara/Lachlan River just outside Condobolin in New South Wales and at age seven he and his siblings were orphaned. He was raised by his eldest sisters and extended family on an Aboriginal reserve. He left school at the age of thirteen and picked up various seasonal and short-term itinerant jobs.[3] His books Me and Mary Kangaroo[4] and Child’s Dreaming[5] reflect a childhood of intimate connection to his mother’s Wiradjuri Country.

His extended family would annually travel on the fruit-picking circuit within Wiradjuri territory as “…a temporary release from near starvation … and above all, it meant some independence, some freedom, from under the crucifying heels of the local police and the white ‘station’ managers; an escape from refugee camps called 'Aboriginal Reserves'”.

On 12 June 1954, he married Goma Scott.[6] In 1957, Gilbert murdered Goma, apparently because of her infidelity.[7] He received a life sentence. In prison, he educated himself and developed his artistic talents. He was released on parole after 14 years.[8]

In 1972, Gilbert received a Commonwealth literary fellowship.[9]

In his own words:[10]

"As a Black artist with all the contemptible misery and heart burnings of a poet, I suffered sitting in white dominated classrooms of rural Australia while white teachers lasciviously railed about ‘naked’ Aboriginals, who were described as heathen, too ignorant to know the basic manner of impregnating females, ‘whistle-cock’ sub-incisions, murderous, cannibals, no law or government, minute cerebral indices etc., only to be latterly ‘saved’ by the ‘glorious’ forefather pioneers who attempted to ‘smooth the dying pillow’ of the ‘pitiful remnants’.

Asking questions, demanding answers and making refutations, we were inevitably sent from the classrooms to go out and sweep the yards, pick up scraps, clean the toilets, for, to conform with the late 1940s and 50s white dream of ‘assimilation’, we had to be made to prove we were incapable of any higher educational potential, save that of achieving fourth class primary level. And we had to conform to work patterns. White Australia, like its corrupt confrere white South Africa and America, wanted Black houseboys to service their peculiar life styles.

"I attained a fourth class primary education level before leaving school at fourteen. Only in prison did I finally have access to reading materials. I attended an art class to try and paint a recurrent image in my mind of an old Aboriginal sitting at the entrance of a cave filled with painted images, while looking out and down over a wide valley filled with eagles. Of course I couldn’t afford oil paints, so I started with lino prints, and was most pleased with the imagery and body involvement of utilizing that medium to protest the continual victimization and genocide against Blacks. I was lucky enough to be able to scrounge some old lino from the prison workshops, inks from the prison printing shop, and had the good fortune of being in the printing section when a reasonably humane guard was in charge and graciously turned a blind eye to my extravagant use of inks, printing paper and to the fact that I virtually tucked myself away ina quiet corner of the workshop each day and did my own thing. Initially, I had to have my poems and prints smuggled from the prison. Exhibitions of my work brought a focus of attention from the printmaking world, when the works were exhibited at the Robin Hood Gallery and the Arts Council Gallery in Sydney. The exhibitions confirmed my resolve to use my poems, writing and art to open up the question of the continuing denial and injustice against Aboriginals, in an effort to bring the reality of the white Australian inhumanity into the open."

Written works[edit]

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.[3] 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[3] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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]

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.[13] Many of these seem to have never been staged but stylistically seem to preempt much of the work of First Nations writers and practitioners of the 1990s such as Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman.[11]

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 to the Governor-general, Sir Ninian Stephens, citing the ongoing injustice and suffering of his people.[14] Gilbert continued writing and exhibiting his artwork.


From 1972 onwards Gilbert was active in numerous Aboriginal human rights causes and most notably in supporting the establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, which remained for six months.[citation needed]

In October 1973 Gilbert was charged with having maliciously sent a letter threatening to kill another person, having written a letter to another man in which he allegedly threatened to kill the Queen. He was at that time editor and sole journalist on the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs' newspaper, Black Australian News.[9]

For the last year of his life, in 1992, he was active in the re-establishment of the Aboriginal Embassy after its 20th Anniversary on a permanent basis and it remains the spearhead of the Sovereignty Movement to this day. He is known for embracing the term "Black".[citation needed]

In the lead-up to Australia's bicentenary celebrations, Gilbert chaired the "Treaty '88" campaign for a treaty enshrining Aboriginal rights and sovereignty.[15]


After his release Gilbert established the Kalari Aboriginal Art Gallery near Taree, NSW. Gilbert is now recognised as the first Aboriginal print-maker and his[16]works have been extensively exhibited nationally and internationally in Havana, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Boston Massachusetts, Portland Oregon, Durban, London and Athens. His unique artistic style is part the Australian National Gallery collection and is housed in other major Australian art institutions.


2016 Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday, Museum of Contemporary Art, (MCA) Sydney[17]

2013 I Do have a belief: Kevin Gilbert (1933 - 1993), Belconnen Art Centre, ACT

2004 Athens Olympics, Greece

2001 Intermission, Wharf 2 Gallery, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Kevin Gilbert Retrospective, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-op, Sydney

2000 - 1996 Breath of Life: Moments in transit towards Aboriginal Sovereignty; Visions of Australia National Tour; CHOGM, Durban, South Africa (2000); Rebecca Hossack Gallery, Soho, London (2000); Umbrella Gallery, Townsville (1999); Indigenous Pathways, Toowoomba (1998); Tandanya – National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide (1997); The Armidale Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place, Armidale (1997); Moree Plains Gallery, Moree (1997); Australian Centre for Photography, Paddington, Sydney (1997); Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth (1997)' Canberra Contemporary Art Space (1996)

1995 Yiribana, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

1994 Tyerabarrbowaryaou II – I shall never become a white man, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and 5th Havana Biennial, Havana, Cuba

Urban Focus, National Gallery of Australia

Who’s afraid of Red, Black and Yella – Museum of Ethnology, Rotterdam

Legends from Down Under, Boomerang Galerie, Amsterdam

New Tracks – Old Land, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

1993 Memorial Tribute to Kevin Gilbert, Gallery One, National Gallery of Australia

New Tracks – Old Land Australian Galleries, Green Street, Soho, New York; Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences, Darwin; Queensland Aboriginal Creations, Brisbane; Redcliff Entertainment Centre, Redcliff, Queensland

1992 New Tracks-Old Land, Massachusetts College of Art, Huntington Gallery, Boston Massachusetts

Painting Our Dreaming, Alliance Francaise Gallery, Canberra ’92 Pressin, Spiral Arm Gallery, Canberra

1991 Tjukurrpa Nganampa Kantyila Kanyintjaku – Keeping Our Dreaming Strong, Hackett, ACT & Alliance Francaise Gallery, Canberra.

Social Images, Gorman House, Canberra.

1990 Desert Art, Albert Hall, Canberra

1989 Narragunnawalli, Canberra Contemporary Art Space

Inside Black Australia, Aboriginal Photographers Exhibition, Showground, Wagga Wagga,NSW; Trades and Labour Club, Newcastle, NSW; Queensland Museum, Brisbane; Museum of Victoria, Melbourne.

1988 Inside Black Australia, Aboriginal Photographers Exhibition Albert Hall, Canberra; Leftbank Bookshop, Canberra; Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney; Centreprize, London;. Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Op, Sydney.

1975-6 Koorainghat Gardens Art Gallery, Taree, NSW

1970-1 Arts Council Gallery, East Sydney

1968, 1969 and 1970 Robin Hood Gallery, Sydney


Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney;yes National Gallery of Australia;yes National Museum of Australia;yes Canberra Museum and Art Gallery;no. Art Gallery of NSW; Queensland Art Gallery; Queensland Museum; West Australian Art Gallery; Powerhouse Museum; Tandanya Aboriginal Art Gallery; Museum of Victoria; Queensland University of Technology; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies; Private collections

In 1992 Gilbert was awarded a Prime Minister’s four-year Creative Fellowship[18] for his ‘outstanding artistic contribution to the nation’

Personal life[edit]

Gilbert died in 1993, aged 59, survived by six children, grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

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.
For children
  • with Williams, Eleanor (photographer) (1992). Child's Dreaming. Hyland House. ISBN 978-0-947062-97-2.
  • with Williams, Eleanor (photographer) (November 1993). Me and Mary Kangaroo. Ringwood, Victoria: Viking Australia (published 1994). ISBN 978-0-670-85284-0.


  1. ^ Gilbert, Kevin (1987) Aboriginal Sovereignty: Justice, the Law and Land, ISBN 978-0-9876030-1-2 (iBook) ISBN 0 9588019 1 6 (print)
  2. ^ Gilbert, Kevin, (1977) Living Blacks: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert ISBN 0-14-004459-0
  3. ^ a b c d 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 (45): 1–14. ISSN 1444-3058. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  4. ^ Gilbert, Kevin, 1996, Me and Mary Kangaroo Viking (1994), Puffin (1996) ISBN 0-14-032314-7
  5. ^ Gilbert, Kevin, (1992), Child's Dreaming, Hyland House, ISBN 0-947062-97-1
  6. ^ Gilbert, Kevin John (1933–1993). Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  7. ^ R v Gilbert NSWCCA, 14 June 1957
  8. ^ Gilbert, Kevin John (1933–1993). Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  9. ^ a b "Court reports". The Canberra Times. Vol. 48, no. 13, 574. 24 October 1973. p. 15. Retrieved 26 September 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  10. ^ Kevin Gilbert in The Struggle Continues, Artlink, vol. 10, no. 1 -2.
  11. ^ a b Eckersley, M. (2009). Drama from the Rim. Melbourne: Drama Victoria. p. 8.
  12. ^ Gilbert, K. (1988). The Cherry Pickers. Canberra: Burrambinga Books. p. 3.
  13. ^ Gilbert, K. (1970). The Gods Look Down and Other Sketches. Sydney: Self-published.
  14. ^ "Biography - Kevin John Gilbert - Indigenous Australia". Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  15. ^ "- Kevin GILBERT". Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  16. ^ Interview with Kevin Gilbert, Hazel de Berg collection, National Library of Australia, October 1971
  17. ^
  18. ^ "StackPath".

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]