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Kevin Gilbert

1933 – 1993

Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993), Indigenous activist, writer and artist, wrote the first play by an Aboriginal person to be publicly performed in Australia. Born in Condoblin, NSW, of Wiradjuri, English and Irish heritage, he grew up on reserves and fringe settlements, beginning to work itinerantly at the age of fourteen. In 1957, when he was 23, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the domestic murder of his non-Aboriginal wife. He served more than fourteen years in prison, maintaining that he acted in self-defence. While incarcerated in the 1960s he began to make lino-cuts, and he wrote the play The Cherry Pickers in 1968. In 1973, two years after his release on parole, his land-rights tract Because a White Man’ll Never Do It was published. Five years later he won the National Book Council Award for an oral history collection, Living Black, which became a secondary-school textbook. He was chair of the Treaty '88 campaign, lobbying for the establishment of a treaty enshrining Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. In this capacity he also organised the touring photography exhibition Inside Black Australia, which included his own work. An anthology of Aboriginal poetry of the same name won him the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Award for Literature in 1988. However, he spurned the honour, feeling, according to his widow Eleanor, that ‘he could not accept such an award while his people were denied human rights in their own land’. In 1992 he received an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council; the National Gallery of Australia acquired many of his prints in the 1990s. Following his death from emphysema at the age of 60, his memorial service took place at the Tent Embassy. The inaugural exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, Open Air, featured a portrait of Gilbert accompanied by one of his poems, as well as his print Christmas Eve in the Land of the Dispossessed. Gilbert’s Canberra-based family curated I Do Have a Belief: Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) at Canberra’s Belconnen Arts Centre in 2013.

Updated 2018