Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993), was a writer, visual artist, poet and playwright. Gilbert was a political activist - an instrumental figure in the Aboriginal land rights and sovereignty movement, participating in the 1972 establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and the ‘Treaty 88’ campaign. He believed art was the most powerful tool to draw attention to continued injustices suffered by Aboriginal people, and to suggest ways forward.
"As a child, sitting, drawing in the ashes of the campfires with twigs and charcoal, aware of the old pieces of tin, hessian bag and canvas that formed our shanty, our humpies, I never even dreamt of being an artist. I was very much aware of the colonial attitudes, the injustice of having my land, Wiradjuri land, stolen from us, my people forced to live in refugee situations, on travelling stock reserves, forbidden to be in the white township after dark, the tens of decades of massacre, oppression, abuse of our human rights. In 1965, mature, I saw art, and writing as a way to communicate."
- Kevin Gilbert
About the Artist
Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) was one of Aboriginal Australia’s most important cultural identities of the late 20th century. Gilbert came to art and literature late in life, with his first artistic works, paintings and prints being made in prison. By the time of his death in 1993, he had established himself as an artist, playwright, poet, and political activist. His work played a significant role in shaping Australian history during the 1970s and '80s, a very dynamic period in the long-term Aboriginal struggle for justice.
The prints you will see in this exhibition are Gilbert's earliest works and are the first lino prints to be made by an Aboriginal artist.
The youngest of eight children, Gilbert was born on the banks of Kalara (Lachlan) River near Condobolin in Wiradjuri Nation. He and his siblings spent their childhood as wards of the state and with relatives.
Gilbert educated himself as an adult in prison. He read extensively, and made his own lino cutting tools from a spoon, gem blades, nails and carved old lino out of the prison floor. He also published his first volume of poetry while in prison.
After his release from prison in 1971 Gilbert became an instrumental figure in the Aboriginal land rights and sovereignty movement, participating in the 1972 establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and the ‘Treaty 88’ campaign. He also edited magazines produced as part of the black resistance, including Alchuringa, Identity, and Black Australian News. He wrote notable plays, two of which are The Cherry Pickers and The Gods Look Down, and two ground breaking books - Because a White Man'll Never Do It (1973) and Living Black (1977), a collection of oral history. He communicated through these works his understanding that poverty and dysfunction are the direct results of colonisation.
In 1988 he was award the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Human Rights Award for Literature.
In 1991 Gilbert was still active politically. In that year he drew attention to the two hundred years of undeclared frontier wars and massacres by in a performance work, carrying a large white cross on a lone walk down Anzac Parade to the Australian War Memorial where he claimed one of the alcoves for those 'who have died in defence of our land' (Scarlett 2014). He believed art was the most powerful tool to draw attention to continued injustices suffered by Aboriginal people, and to suggest ways forward.