About Kevin Gilbert 1933–1993

Kevin Gilbert, a Wiradjuri warrior, was born on the banks of the Kalara, Lachlan River.
He was the first Aboriginal playwright, printmaker and author of the first political work on Aboriginal issues. He was an active human rights defender and was involved in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 and its re-establishment on a permanent basis in 1992. In 1979 Kevin led the National Aboriginal Government protest on Capital Hill, Canberra. His vision for an Australia with integrity led to him being chairman of the Treaty ’88 Campaign for a sovereign treaty between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. He defined the legal argument for a Treaty/Treaties and Aboriginal Sovereignty in Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice, the Law and Land.

I Do Have a Belief

Excerpt from an interview by Trevor Robertson with Kevin Gilbert, broadcast 18 February 1992 by Radio Australia to 50 million listeners worldwide.

I asked Kevin Gilbert if he had hope for the future.

I do have a belief in the future
It’s not hope.
I believe in this country
because there is a spirit in this country
that nurtures life
that nurtures the land
that nurtures the humanity in it.
People should remember
that we are the oldest surviving race
of People, culture of People, in the world.
We are in one way
the world’s most important heritage
just for that link alone.
They know our People
have been on this pace for 50-60 thousand years.
They know, the invader knows this.
We know that our People have been here
from the beginning of time.
We believe
as the experts in the world keep testing
with their modern technology
that they will establish
the integrity of our claims
that we have been here
from the beginning of time
the creation
(in whatever form you see it)
the creation of man, Homo sapiens
and that we are indeed
very, very important to the world.
Not now merely in the physical sense
this sense, the lineal sense of man
the genealogy of man,
but we are very, very important
and will contribute in what we know
and what we can and will contribute
to a world that is desperately in need
of Aboriginal inspiration
Aboriginal caring
a different type of technological approach
and we know that we possess this.
So what I am saying is not a hope
it is a belief.
I know that justice will come
because I know that the rivers here are dying
the land is dying day by day
being killed by the whiteman colonists’ pollution.
Life itself is dying
and the whiteman has nowhere else to turn.
They have to turn
They have to come to grips with the fact
they are relatively unimportant
to the total mosaic of life.
That it is all of us.
It is they that must seek
a new direction.

© Kevin Gilbert 18 February 1992

Published works:

Aboriginal Sovereignty: Justice The Law and Land
Treaty ’88, 1987 & 1988, Burrambinga Books, 1993

Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert
Allen Lane, 1977
Penguin Books, 1978

Because a White Man’ll Never Do It
Angus and Robertson, 1973; Harper Collins,1994;
Angus and Robertson Classic, 2002, 2013

Black from the Edge
Hyland House, 1994

The Blackside: People Are legends and other poems
Hyland House, 1990

People Are Legends
University of Queensland Press, 1979

Inside Black Australia: An Anthology
Penguin Books, 1989

For children:
Me and Mary Kangaroo
Viking, 1994
Puffin Books, 1996

Child’s Dreaming
Hyland House, 1992

The Cherry Pickers: The First Written Aboriginal Play
Burrambinga Books, 1988. (First written in 1968).

Performances of The Cherry Pickers:
1968 initial reading of the play in 1968 ‘in the open air'.
1970 the play was nominated for the Captain Cook Memorial Award and was highly commended.
1971 Mews Theatre Workshop, Sydney-rehearsed readings
1973 Nindethana Theatre, Fitzroy, Melbourne - full performance
1987 First National Black Playwrights Conference, Canberra - workshop
1993 Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts, Brisbane - full performance
2001 Sydney Theatre Company production 2001,- full performance
2002 International tour in Britain - full performance
including Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival, Manchester.

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)

Gilbert wrote the play The Cherry Pickers in 1968 and first exhibited his work in 1970 at the Arts Council Gallery, Sydney, in an exhibition organised by the Australia Council. He was granted parole in 1971. Gilbert was instrumental in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy opposite Old Parliament House, Canberra the following year, and wrote Because a White Man'll Never Do It in 1973. His book Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert (1977) was awarded the National Book Council Book Award in 1978.

Gilbert was Chairperson of the Treaty '88 campaign, which fought for the establishment of a treaty enshrining Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. In this capacity he also organised the touring photography exhibition Inside Black Australia, in which his own work was included. In 1988 Gilbert was awarded the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Human Rights Award for Literature for his anthology of Aboriginal poetry, Inside Black Australia, which he returned; feeling he could not accept such an award while his people were denied human rights in their own land. His work was included in Narragunnawali at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space in 1989. In 1992 he received a Australian Artists Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council, but died less than half a year later.

Gilbert's work has been included posthumously in numerous exhibitions including the touring exhibition New Tracks - Old Land in 1993. In 1994 his work was also exhibited in Urban Focus: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from the Urban Areas of Australia at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and Tyerabarrbowaryaou II: I Shall Never Become a Whiteman, which was shown as part of the 5th Havana Biennial, Cuba that same year. In 1995 Gilbert's poetry Black from the Edge was awarded the RAKA award, and his children's book Me and Mary Kangaroo was shortlisted for the 1995 Australian Multicultural Award. He communicated a vision for the way forward: "only those who love the land and love justice will ultimately hold the land".

Kevin used his creative intelligence to cut through the layers of white denial that are the fabric of the foundation of Australia. At the same time, his inspiration is a source of empowerment to the survivors of the agenda of genocide which is being perpetuated against those who are born with the responsibility to care for this ancient country. He would often refer to his work as 'tucker for the people'. Having developed his art of the written word, he found photography a powerful and complementary expression capable of affirming the reality of which he spoke.

The slogan White Australia not a nation but a community of thieves was very much his theme for the years leading up to and including the 1988 Bicentennary. The use of Xavier Herbert's words, rather than his own, was Kevin's way of paying tribute to the author's contribution to Black Australia. The phrase appeared on banners, stickers, t-shirts, posters, and in books.

The spontaneous moment of pressing the shutter has encapsulated not only the resistance of oppression by living Black in this land and being confronted with the daily reality of the 'locked gate' syndrome and the constant threat of incarceration for lifestyle offences, but also the sheer courage it takes for Aboriginal Nations and Peoples to confront the oppressor full on. The power of the image gains energy during these genocidal times of land theft on a continental scale, when the word extinguish is not far removed from exterminate; when the 'community of thieves' is hell-bent on compelling the custodians of the oldest culture in the world to conform to the ways of the invading culture.

Raising our sovereign flag was a particular favourite of Kevin's because it reflects the strength to be found in the unity of diversity. At the opening of new Parliament House in Canberra, representatives from Aboriginal Nations and Peoples from across this land confronted not only the 'seat of government', but also the Crown from which the genocide originates. The photograph was taken in the early morning after a march which began in darkness - a strategy by the 'minders' to minimise the impact on the international media? The 'minders' has also insisted the flags and banners be left behind, but this tactic failed. As the events of the day unfolded, the power of the Aboriginal spirit was evident to all.

Like a fragrance or hologram, a photograph can evoke the intangible atmosphere and the memory of the event. To those present it is no surprise that the official documentaries of the opening show only the entrance and left wing of the new Parliament House. The right wing was covered with the flags and banners of black, red and gold. It is also no surprise that there is no official soundtrack of the Queen's appearance at the entrance and her walk on the forecourt. Thousands of Kooris, Murris, Nungas, Yapa, Nyoongahs, Palawar, and Gooris from across the land were sitting in the hot sun on the gravel beneath the right wing for what was organised as a 'peaceful protest'. All Kevin had said to the manipulative organisers beforehand was, "You'll never silence the mob". His words proved prophetic. As soon as the Queen appeared in the entrance, 'the mob' rose in unison, turned away, and sustained the spontaneous chant: "Shame! Shame! Shame!" A supporter with army training asked later: "How did you do it? For all our army training we are never that co-ordinated". Perhaps the answer lies with the indomitable spirit of the land.

Kevin recorded a source of his inspiration in the catalogue to the 1988 group photographic exhibition Inside Black Australia:
"… inspired by the need to communicate with the wider community the possibility in this great land; to begin developing a dialogue based on justice,
so that ultimately we can begin to develop all people and encompass them in a code of spiritual being and national conduct, which not only reflects
the very essence of life itself and the ultimate continuum for Being, but also will enable us, upon attainment, to project that magnanimity of spirit
throughout the world."