A voice for his people

April 21, 1993

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.
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.
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
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

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

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