“Who are you Kevin J Gilbert?”
“Identification? I am an Aboriginal. In my heart, my love, my purpose in life, I am an Aboriginal.”2
Kevin Gilbert was born in Wiradjuri country near Condoblin in 1933. While in prison for murder he asked for books on anthropology, sociology and theology from the prison library. With little formal education and known only as Number 16, Kevin began to write poetry and to paint.3 In 1968 Kevin wrote a play called “The Cherry Pickers” becoming Australia’s first Aboriginal playwright.4
Kevin was released from prison in 19715 and immediately became an activist for Aboriginal Land Rights and was a founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.6 In 1972 Kevin was instrumental in the famous “Black Moratorium” which was a march of over 6000 people from Redfern to Sydney demanding land and civil rights for Aboriginal people. Marches occurred across the country with 80 people from Purfleet joining the Newcastle march.7
In 1973 Kevin moved with his wife Cora to Koorainghat near Taree.8 Here he established the Kalari Aboriginal Art Gallery to encourage and develop local talent. Kevin’s artworks, particularly linocuts, have been exhibited nationally and internationally and are in many major collections.9 During the 1970s Kevin worked as a development adviser with the Purfleet Aboriginal Cooperative and helped to establish the Manning River fishing project and secure funds for training and equipment for the community gift shop.10
Kevin wrote two ground-breaking works “Because a White Man’ll Never Do It” and “Living Black”. The first title being a direct quote from Alice Briggs of Purfleet.11 These works were among the first to give Aboriginal people a voice and to share their experiences with the broader community.
Kevin Gilbert died in Canberra in 1993 and was described at his memorial as a man of peace, understanding and profound insight. He was one of the nation’s strongest advocates for the rights of First Australians.12
Author: Janine Roberts
More information: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilbert-kevin-john-18569
1 Tharunka, 13 March 1974, 9.
2 Tharunka, 2 September 1969, 15.
3 Tharunka, 2 September 1969, 15.
4 The Academy, https://resource.acu.edu.au/siryan/Academy/texts/cherry_pickers.htm; Canberra Times, 8 April 1972, 15.
5 The Canberra Times, 1 June 1971, 3.
6 Tribune, 18 July 1972, 10; Tribune, 30 October 1973, 2.
7 Tribune, 18 July 1972, 10.
8 NSW BDM, marriage index for Kevin John Gilbert and Cora Walther, No. 57663/1971.
9 Design and Art Australia Online, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/kevin-gilbert/biography/
10 Australia. Department of Aboriginal Affairs (1976-06-30). 4. Community Development in Annual Report (415 of 1976), 24.
11 Tharunka, 13 March 1974, 14; Aboriginal Biographical Index Entry, https://iats.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/external/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fSD_ILS$002f0$002fSD_ILS:129740/ada
12 The Canberra Times, 3 April 1993, 7 and 9 April 1993, 3.