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Gilbert, Kevin John (1933–1993)

by Alison Holland and Eleanor Williams-Gilbert

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Kevin John Gilbert (1933–1993), First Nations human rights defender, poet, playwright, and artist, was born on 10 July 1933 to the Wiradjuri Nation on the banks of the Kalara (Lachlan) river near Condobolin, New South Wales, youngest of eight children of New South Wales-born parents John Joseph Gilbert, labourer, and his wife Rachel Elizabeth, née Naden. His father’s ancestry was English and Irish, and his mother was of Aboriginal and Irish descent. Kevin’s childhood—as would later be reflected in his books Me and Mary Kangaroo (1994) and Child’s Dreaming (1992)—was one of intimate connection with his mother’s Country. When he was seven his father killed his mother then himself; he and his siblings then moved between relatives and the child welfare system. He ended up in an orphanage where, after several attempts, he escaped and lived once more with extended family at the Murie camp, Condobolin. With them he travelled within the Wiradjuri Nation in central New South Wales as they made their living as fruit-pickers and bush-workers. For a time, he was a station manager on local landholdings. On 12 June 1954 he married Goma Scott, a domestic, at the Condobolin Court House.

In 1957, aged twenty-four, Gilbert was sentenced to life imprisonment after a domestic dispute resulted in the death of his first wife. He spent fourteen years in the most notorious prisons in New South Wales. By his own testimony this was a brutal and dehumanising experience with extended periods in solitary confinement. With little formal education, up to fifth class, he spent much of his time in prison educating himself on a wide range of subjects and read dictionaries from cover to cover. Supported by the Robin Hood Committee’s prison visitors, he also developed his artistic talent, particularly painting and printmaking, producing artworks of Wiradjuri spirituality and teachings. The Arts Council Gallery, Sydney, exhibited his art before his release. An anthology of his poetry, End of Dream-Time (1971), was published before he was freed, but he publicly disowned it because the publisher had changed the meaning of his original works.

Gilbert’s iconic play, The Cherry Pickers (1968), was the first play written by an Aboriginal person. He stipulated it could only be performed by an all-Aboriginal cast. Depicting the richness and humour of extended family within the impoverished life of itinerant fruit-pickers, the play signalled his deep commitment to expose and politicise the conditions of Aboriginal life, ongoing struggles, and survival. It was first workshopped in 1971 and the prologue, added later, was workshopped at the First Black Playwrights Conference in 1987. He self-published the play in 1988, but only posthumously were full productions performed, with an all-Aboriginal cast, first by Koemba Jdarra in 1994 and later, with an Aboriginal director, by the Sydney Theatre Company, which then toured The Cherry Pickers in England during the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

After Gilbert’s release from prison in 1971, he married Cora Walther, a publicity officer, on 24 July at the Methodist Church, Balmain. In 1973 he established the Kalari Aboriginal Art Gallery at Kooringhat, near Taree, New South Wales, to encourage and develop artistic talent in the community.

Gilbert’s release coincided with the rise of militant Aboriginal protest, including the Black Power movement, in the 1970s. A young generation of Aboriginal activists, impatient for change, initiated political strategies to demand redress by the Australian state. Determined to effect change he helped mastermind the Aboriginal Embassy in Canberra in 1972, which he could not physically attend on account of his parole conditions.  The Embassy was precipitated by Liberal Prime Minister (Sir) William McMahon’s announcement on 26 January 1972 that the Commonwealth would lease Aboriginal people their own land following a decade’s long campaign by the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land and others for land rights. This demonstrated the difficulties First Nations Peoples faced in finding justice within Australian colonial law.

For the next decade Gilbert worked on developing a political language and platform for First Nations’ liberation, editing magazines of the Black resistance, including Alchuringa, Identity, and Black Australian News. He also published two seminal works—Because A White Man’ll Never Do It (1973) and the collective voice oral history work Living Black (1977). Both were products of his experiences of contemporary Aboriginal life and consciousness. In these searingly bleak portrayals of Aboriginal treatment he saw poverty and dysfunction as the direct result of colonisation. He advocated that the remedy for the historic violation of Aboriginal peoples’ human rights was not bandaid measures and white man’s paternalistic intervention, but the assertion of pre-existing sovereignty, land rights, reparation, and discreet non-dictatorial assistance.

Gilbert spent the remaining years of his life developing a program for the recognition of Aboriginal sovereign independence, which he felt could only be achieved via recognition of First Nations unceded sovereignty. He chose the pen as his weapon:

The pen is mightier than the sword
but only when
it sows the seeds of thought
in minds of men
to kindle love and grow
through the burnt page
destroyed by huns and vandals in their rage (Gilbert 1994, 48).

 This view was honed in the late 1970s and through the 1980s in the context of the ‘rule of the conflict of laws’ around land rights. In 1972 the Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, established the National Aboriginal Consultative Council, which was wound back to become the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) as an advisory body to government. In 1979 Gilbert set up the National Aboriginal Government under canvas on the selected site for the new Parliament House and demanded a sovereign treaty under international law and a Bill of Aboriginal Rights.

The culmination of Gilbert’s decades of thinking around First Nations’ rights was the Treaty ’88 Committee, which he established and chaired. From 1985 he looked to the year of the bicentenary to articulate the inherent sovereign rights of Aboriginal Nations, self-publishing Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice, the Law and Land (1987). Having studied the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) he argued that, under international law, British sovereignty was ‘encumbered root title.’ He sent his book to Aboriginal communities around Australia. In it, he stated that Captain Cook had been ordered to take possession of the east coast of Australia with Indigenous consent, which Cook did not obtain. Instead, the land was taken by theft, unlawful occupation, genocide, rape, and massacre. No war was declared. No sovereignty was ceded. Hence, a sovereign treaty would affirm the legal right to possession and occupancy and protect the human, civil, and sovereign rights of the First Nations. As an internationally enforceable instrument it could hold domestic governments to account and be part of a new constitution for an independent Australia, freed from colonialism.

The importance of the Vienna Convention is that it defines treaties as agreements between sovereign equals as a means to promote friendly and cooperative relations among nations. For Gilbert, then, a treaty was about a just way forward. As he said: ‘with all domestic options exhausted, a Sovereign Treaty is our only peaceful way to justice. There can be no reconciliation without a Sovereign Treaty’ (Gilbert 1993, endpaper). A treaty would be a proper foundation for black/white relations based on justice and humanity.

Gilbert rejected Nugget Coombs’s Treaty Committee’s request for a domestic ‘Treaty of Commitment’ between Aboriginal people and the government ‘within Australia by Australians,’ as well as the Federal Liberal government’s 1981 diluted offer to the NAC of a domestic ‘Makaratta’ (Yolngu word meaning ‘things are okay again after the fight’)  even though Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had initially agreed to discuss a treaty with the NAC in 1979. The Makaratta and the derailing of land rights demonstrated how governments had all the power, as Gilbert said: ‘We’ll always be rubbish men, men without straw, without sovereignty and power in our word or say upon the government’ (NLA MS 2584). After the Hawke Labor government not only reneged on its promise of national uniform land rights legislation, but also reneged on Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s promise at the Barunga Festival, in the Northern Territory, on 12 June 1988 to negotiate a treaty, and declared that sovereignty was not on the agenda, Gilbert issued a press release to the Federal government and governor-general. Presenting himself a sovereign envoy, he requested the withdrawal of foreign embassies from Aboriginal lands until Aboriginal sovereignty was recognised and protected by international law. This was not just about rights in land, it was the right to negotiate and the right to reparation and compensation.

In 1991 Gilbert drew attention to the two hundred years of undeclared frontier wars and genocidal massacres by carrying a large white cross on a lone walk down Anzac Parade in front of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and claiming one of the alcoves for those ‘who have died in defense of our land’ (Scarlett 2014).

Gilbert was instrumental in permanently re-establishing the Aboriginal Embassy on its twentieth anniversary in 1992 and spent the last year of his life there, ensuring it remained the spearhead of resistance against the colonial power. On 28 November 1992 he married his long-time partner, Eleanor Mary Williams, an ecologist and photographer, in a civil ceremony in Canberra.

Throughout these years Gilbert’s creative outputs—books, artworks, and photographs—sustained him and his family spiritually and emotionally. He was the first Aboriginal printmaker and his art has been extensively exhibited nationally and internationally and is part of permanent collections at major Australian art institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. He is also recognised as an iconic poet, playwright, author, and activist on concepts of Country, justice, the politics of First Nations’ identity, and Australian history. In 1978 Living Black won the National Book Council award. For the anthology Inside Black Australia (1988) he received the Human Rights Award for Literature in 1988, which he refused to accept from the governor-general due to the continuing violations of Aboriginal human rights. In 1992, he was awarded an esteemed Australian Artists Creative fellowship and was posthumously awarded the prestigious Kate Challis RAKA Award for his poetry, Black From The Edge (1994). The Blackside, People Are Legends and Other Poems (1990) has made him the first Aboriginal poet to be published in the French language with the bilingual anthology Le Versant Noir (2018).

Survived by his wife, and six children, Gilbert died of emphysema on 1 April 1993 in Canberra. A memorial was held at the Aboriginal Embassy. Fondly remembered as the ‘Land Rights Man,’ ‘Treaty man,’ and ‘Rain-maker,’ and as an inspirational leader he has been likened to the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King (Headon 1993, 23). He recorded a source for his creative intelligence:

… inspired by the need to communicate with the wider community the possibility in this great land; to 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 (Inside Black Australia [1988]).

His work on sovereignty and treaty is a key foundation of the contemporary First Nations Sovereignty Movement.

His final writing, dated February 1993, is:

If we want the Dream to come true
we must BE true to the Dream
but all this will only be meaningful
if there are Dreamers who respond
and make the Dream come true (Breath of Life 1996, title page).

Select Bibliography

  • Breath of Life: Moments in Transit Towards Aboriginal Sovereignty. Braddon, ACT: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 1996
  • Gilbert family, personal communications
  • Gilbert, Kevin. Aboriginal Sovereignty: Justice, the Law, and Land (includes draft treaty). Canberra: Burrambinga Books, 1993
  • Gilbert, Kevin. Black From the Edge. South Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing, 1994
  • Gilbert, Kevin. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 27 October 1971. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Headon, David. ‘Modern-Day Warrior Who Wielded His Pen Like a Sword.’ Canberra Times, 18 April 1993, 23
  • Inside Black Australia: Aboriginal Photographers Exhibition. Canberra: Treaty ’88, [1988]
  • McMillan, Pauline. ‘Kevin Gilbert and Living Black.’ Journal of Australian Studies 19, no. 45 (1995): 1–14
  • National Library of Australia. MS 2584, Papers of Kevin Gilbert, 1969–1979
  • Scarlett, Philippa. ‘Acknowledgement Sought: Kevin Gilbert, Aboriginal Australians and the War of Invasion.’ 24 April 2014. Accessed 5 November 2018. https://indigenoushistories.com/2014/04/23/acknowledgement-sought-kevin-gilbert-aboriginal-australians-and-the-war-of-invasion/ Copy held on ADB file
  • Williams, Eleanor. ‘Kevin Gilbert 1933–1992.’ 1998. The Koori History Website: Martyrs in the Struggle for Justice. Accessed 27 October 2015. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/gilbert.html. Copy on ADB file

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alison Holland and Eleanor Williams-Gilbert, 'Gilbert, Kevin John (1933–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/gilbert-kevin-john-18569/text30225, accessed 19 December 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012