A voice for his people

Issue 

Kevin Gilbert, Aboriginal artist, poet, playwright and activist, died on April 1, in Canberra, after a long battle with emphysema. Kevin's daughter, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, prepared the following tribute to her father, in poetry and prose.

Kevin Gilbert was the first Aboriginal playwright and print maker. In 1968 he wrote The Cherry Pickers while serving a life sentence for murder. By the time of his release, he was a well-known artist and writer.

The Cherry Pickers was workshopped by the New Theatre in 1971 by an all Aboriginal cast and performed shortly after by the Nindethan Theatre in Fitzroy, Melbourne, again by an Aboriginal cast.

Kevin refused further productions in other states in an effort to focus on the fact that no government or private organisation was supporting Aboriginal actors or performers to participate in the arts. During this time it was common for non-Aboriginal people to tint their skins with stage paint and play Aboriginal roles.

The Cherry Pickers will be performed next September as part of an Aboriginal co-production for the Australian National Playwrights Conference planned for the International Year of the World's Indigenous people.

In 1973 Kevin wrote Because a White Man'll Never Do It. This was seen as the first political work by an Aboriginal. His other works include: Living Black, a collection of Aboriginal oral history; The Blackside, a collection of poetry; Aboriginal sovereignty: justice, the law and the land; and Child's Dreaming, a collection of children's poetry.

Kevin's art work is exhibited in galleries throughout Australia and in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

In his fight to obtain equal and human rights for his people, Kevin assisted with the establishment of the Tent Embassy in 1971. Twenty-two years later it was appropriate that a ceremony in his memory was held at the Tent Embassy on April 8.

In 1988 Kevin was awarded the Human Rights Award as the editor and poet for Inside Black Australia, an anthology of Aboriginal poetry. Kevin refused this award, believing it would be wrong for him to accept a human rights award when his people were not given human rights in their own country.


Shame

And some say "Shame" when we're talkin' up

And "Shame" for the way we are

And "Shame" cause we ain't got a big flash house

Or a steady job and a car.



Some call it "Shame" when our kids they die

From colds or from sheer neglect

"Shame" when we live on the river banks

While collectin' our welfare cheques

"Shame" when we're blind from trachoma

"Shame" when we're crippled from blights



But I reckon the worstest shame is yours

You deny us human rights


... Kevin Gilbert

The minister for Aboriginal affairs, Robert Tickner, paid tribute to Kevin as "a formidable opponent of politicians and governments who he regarded as failing to respond to Aboriginal allegations. He was nevertheless a gentle and sensitive man."

To Kevin there was no greater fight than the fight for human rights for the original owners of this land. He was renowned for his fight for Aboriginal sovereignty, land rights and treaty.

Kevin's work will be remembered. His words and voice will be heard throughout the Aboriginal nations of this land, by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and they will carry across the world.


Tree


I am the tree

the lean hard hungry land

the crow and eagle

sun and moon and sea

I am the sacred clay

which forms the base

the grasses vines and man

I am all things created

I am you and

you are nothing

but through me the tree

you are

and nothing comes to me

except through that one living gateway

to be free

and you are nothing yet

for all creation

earth and God and man

is nothing

until they fuse

and become a total sum of something

together fuse to consciousness of all

and every sacred part aware

alive

in true affinity


... Kevin Gilbert

In a recent interview, Kevin stated his vision of Australia: "I believe if there is to be an Australian culture it cannot be imported, earth-scorched culture. Cultures and the people are developed from the land they occupy.

"Culture has to be developed from the heart, from the depths of human integrity, the depths of human passion, the depths of human creativity, and I believe that if there is ever to be a sound, overall culture, it must evolve or be based upon these finest aspects of the human family — integrity, justice, vision, creativity, life, honour.


from True

I know you're wrong when you claim you're right

and your truth is black when you claim it white

Still, you
believe and I know, I know

that we all must tend the land we hoe

and live to the dreams we dream

And we must all rise to the beck'ning sun

That guides us all on the race we run

And you believe, I know I know

That your truth is true, yet a coal-black snow

Is as white as the truth you claim.

Yet you
believe and you hold the right

To believe a lie is truth, is light

Is a Beckoning Star in Abysmal night

And as true as a man is true.

I know you're right when you claim I'm wrong

That I'm out of tune with your own sad song

For you
believe and to me it seems

That your feet of clay keep your heart from dreams

And away from a Nobler truth.

I know, I know that the plant you grow

Is a bitter tree that the wise men know

Bears a fruit that is bitter-sweet

And I believe — as I see you grieve

That the light was dimm'd since Adam, Eve

Sprang from the basest clay I know

That your feet
are clay and we all must sow

The crop that we each must reap

Yet you
believe and you can't be wrong

For each man's truth is another's wrong

And we each must walk that path alone

To reach the deepest depths, a throne

Of truth till a truer comes

... Kevin Gilbert

To the Aboriginal nations, Kevin's message is clear. Their sovereign right is to form the sovereign Aboriginal congress from the grassroots, and for that to be the body which negotiates with the invading power.

"As we go into the third century of violation of human rights, we seek a Sovereign Treaty recognising our prior possession of this land, our right to life, our right to recognition as a People, our right to be protected under international covenants governing a treaty and the human rights conventions." (From Blackside)

Kevin Gilbert was a sovereign Wiradjuri man from the Wiradjuri nation. He is survived by his six children, wife and family.


My Father


My father is a man

An incredible one at that

He gives me love,

peace and happiness

He has a calming presence

But a strong determination

He fights for Black Rights

His devotion is unquestionable

His words are quite unique

He is so smart and knowledgeable

so strong and determined

So all you people listen

And be proud to know this man

His words are incredible

For he's an incredible man

My father, Kevin Gilbert


... Kerry Reed-Gilbert


A message to be heard


For sixty years

he walked this earth

with a special

message

to be heard



Black rights, justice

his work was never done

while ever the whiteman

kept the blackman

under his thumb



With his dying breath

you could hear him cry



Stop the tears and the crying

Stop the lies and the dying

Stop the heartache and the pain





With his dying breath

you could hear him cry



Give justice to the Blackman

the outcast in his own land

... Kerry Reed-Gilbert