Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Kevin Gilbert
1933 - 1992
Kevin Gilbert
1933 - 1992

Kevin Gilbert was born in Condobolin, New South Wales in 1933, of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples. He left school after fifth grade at age fourteen, and worked in itinerant seasonal jobs. In 1957 Gilbert was sentenced to life imprisonment after a domestic dispute in which his wife was killed. During the fourteen years that he spent in some of the worst jails in Australia he strove to educate himself, honing his artistic talents to become a prominent poet, playwright, printmaker (Gilbert was Australia's first recognised Aboriginal printmaker) and photographer.

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. Kevin Gilbert died in 1993. The Kevin Gilbert Memorial Trust was established in 1993 to further his aspirations.

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, 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 appeared on 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."

Eleanor Williams, September 1998

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