b.1933, Condobolin, New South Wales. d.1993, Canberra.
Born on the banks of the Kalara (Lachlan River) in Condobolin in central New South Wales in 1933, Kevin Gilbert is of the Wiradjuri Nation. He was orphaned at a young age and was raised, along with two of his sisters, by family at a fringe camp near Condobolin after they escaped from the orphanages where they were initially sent. After working his way from itinerant jobs to station manager, he was gaoled for 14 years after a domestic dispute resulting in the death of his first wife. During his time in prison Gilbert developed lino cutting techniques and fostered other interests across various arts professions including poetry and writing. His play The Cherry Pickers was nominated for the Captain Cook Memorial Award in 1970.
In 1971 Gilbert joined the Gurindji Land Rights campaign and was instrumental in establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy opposite Parliament House in Canberra in 1972. He crystallised central issues of the Aboriginal political struggle in his book Because a White Man’ll Never Do It and exposed the reality of surviving genocide in the oral history Living Black, a collection of Aboriginal peoples’ stories that won the National Book Council award in 1978. In 1979 he spearheaded the National Aboriginal Government protest on Capital Hill, Canberra, calling for acceptance of, and respect for, Aboriginal Sovereignty. In 1981 he moved to the bush on the Queanbeyan River and coordinated the Treaty’88 campaign.
To coincide with the 1988 opening of the new Parliament House, Gilbert commissioned and exhibited the ground breaking photographic group exhibition Inside Black Australia: Aboriginal Photographers’ Exhibition. Later that year the Governor-General presented him the 1988 Human Rights Award for Literature for his anthology Inside Black Australia, but Gilbert publicly refused it on the grounds that Aboriginal peoples continue to be denied basic human rights in their own land. In 1992 Gilbert was instrumental in re-establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and spent most of the last year of his life there.
Gilbert’s art is held in most major national and state gallery collections and has been exhibited in the Netherlands, Greece, England, South Africa and the USA.
In 1992 he was awarded a four-year Creative Arts Fellowship for his outstanding artistic contribution to the nation but died six months later aged 59. Gilbert was posthumously presented the RAKA poetry award for Black from the Edge and was highly commended in the ACT Book of the Year award in 1995. His autobiographical book for children, Me and Mary Kangaroo, was shortlisted for the 1995 Australian Multicultural Award. His lino print series was exhibited in the MCA exhibition Tyerabarrbowaryaou II: I shall never become a white man for the Havana Biennale, Cuba in 1994.
Find more of the work by Kevin Gilbert in our Collection online.