Kevin Gilbert, ‘Colonising Species’ #2013-0435
About the artist
Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) was born into the Wiradjuri nation at Condobolin. The youngest of eight children, he and his siblings were orphaned at a very young age, which exposed the family to the racism of constant police harassment in country towns. He escaped the orphanages with two of his sisters, returning to Condobolin to their extended family where they lived off the land in a ‘fringe camp’, holding onto Waradjuri language and culture. Married with two children, Gilbert successfully worked his way to being a station manager on a property near Condoblin, but his marriage ended in tragedy. He was found guilty of the murder of his wife, for which he served more than fourteen years in gaol. With limited reading material, and a formal education only to fourth grade, Gilbert read dictionaries from cover to cover and developed an extensive vocabulary. In Long Bay Gaol Gilbert learnt the art of lino-cutting techniques which enabled him to become the first Aboriginal printmaker. He made his own tools ‘from a spoon, fork, gem blades and nails’, carved ‘old brittle lino off the prison floor’ and printed images using the back of a spoon. His artwork was first exhibited in 1970 at the Arts Council Gallery, Sydney, in an exhibition organised by the Australia Council.
Gilbert became the first Aboriginal playwright when ‘The Cherry Pickers’ was published in 1968. In 2001 ‘The Cherry Pickers’, directed by Wesley Enoch, toured to the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival in Manchester 2002. In 1971, Gilbert joined the Gurindji Lands 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’. He exposed the reality of surviving genocide in the oral history Living Black, a collection of Aboriginal people’s stories which 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 co-ordinated the Treaty ‘88 campaign. He defined a legal argument for justice in ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice, the Law and Land (including Draft Treaty)’ and completed the books ‘Inside Black Australia’, ‘The Cherry Pickers’, and ‘Child’s Dreaming’. In 1992 Gilbert was instrumental in re-establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and spent most of the last year of his life located there. He had a profound conviction that the Aboriginal Embassy was the vehicle through which there would be a resolution to the underlying conflict over the opposing sovereignties in Australia. After his death, some of his ashes were spread on one of the Tent Embassy fires.
The artwork ‘Colonising Species’ features a white swan (an emblem of European nature) clutching around the neck a lifeless black swan (endemic to southern Australia) – blood dripping, over the lower red half of a backdrop that seems to evoke an Aboriginal flag. It shows the blood of oppressed Indigenous people dripping on the British Crown, and depicts the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision, rejecting the idea of Australia as ‘terra nullius’ before British settlement, as the turning point for Aboriginal justice. This work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and is in major collections around Australia.