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Gilbert, Kevin John (1933–1993)

by Jack Waterford

 Kevin Gilbert, who died of emphysema in Canberra on Thursday at the age of 60, was one of Aboriginal Australia's greatest poets and writers of prose — an exile from his own community who most effectively wrote of its demands for land rights, for sovereignty and a treaty.

Born in Condobolin, in central NSW, in 1933 of an Irish father and Aboriginal mother, he grew up as a fringe dweller. His parents died when he was seven. He and his sister spent their childhoods tossed initially between stern aunts, then snatched by the child welfare system where, like so many young Aborigines of that generation, he grew up in loveless institutions. He ran away with about five years of formal schooling, and, by his early teens was back within his extended family living an itinerant life fruit-picking, burr-cutting and rouseabouting in western NSW.

At the age of 23 he was married, with two children and living on the mallee at Wilcannia on the Darling River. He killed his wife while drunk. In 1957, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Dubbo.

He served at Long Bay, at Morrisett Psychiatric Hospital, and later at the infamous Grafton Jail, then the "intractables" "prison where systematic brutality was used on difficult prisoners. In the late 1960s, he took up schooling again, became a voracious reader — of theology, anthropology and literature — and began producing art works, particularly linocuts, of great quality. He was particularly encouraged by the Robin Hood committee, a prison visitor system, and by Mrs Marion Baker, who recognised his talent and began promoting his release.

His first play, The Cherry Pickers, about seasonal workers, was performed in 1971. His material was simple, stark and powerful, with a strong sense of rhythm.

Paroled late in 1971, he became involved in Aboriginal issues and played a major role — limited by his parole keeping him in NSW — in the 1972 Aboriginal Embassy.

Literary Fund grants saw him complete a number of books, including Because a White Man'll Never Do It, Living Black and works of verse. In Living Black, he said Aboriginal Australia "went through a rape of the soul so profound that the blight continues in the minds of most blacks today.... Our people, psychologically, are like kangaroos sitting on a bush road at night, unable to move when the spotlight hits them. They just sit there waiting for it."

Kevin Gilbert became one of the nation's best known articulators of Aboriginal interests, particularly on land rights, sovereignity and the need for a treaty. He never returned to Aboriginal communities and largely lived away from them; his primary impact was amongst non-Aboriginal Australians. His was the criticism and the passion of the exile; his insights came, to a large extent, from seeing at a distance. As such, rather than as spokesman of any particular group, his vision and his views became highly respected by other Aborigines.

Kevin Gilbert formed new relationships, strong friendships, had a new family, and lived first at Captains Flat and more recently in Canberra. He dabbled with new age groups and people seeking unified philosophies and religions. In recent times, he had suffered severe emphysema and had had to travel with portable oxygen.

Last year he was awarded a "Keating" — the $220,000 fellowship granted over four years to Australian artists of high distinction by the Federal Government — an award for which he had applied but which he then declined to be present to receive. He wrote to the Prime Minister saying, "Thanks for the gong, mate... I cannot join you today. My people may feel hurt should I attend. They could feel I have traded away a little of their hope by joining society. They could feel that I was fraternising and collaborating with the enemy."

Kevin is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and six children. A funeral service will be held at the Aboriginal Embassy, near the Old Parliament House, on Thursday.

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Gilbert, Kevin John (1933–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gilbert-kevin-john-18569/text33650, accessed 19 September 2017.

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