Review: Kevin Gilbert – ‘distinctive’ language

“I Do Have A Belief,” Kevin Gilbert exhibition at The Belconnen Arts Centre until April 14. Reviewed by Johnny Milner

WHILE Canberra’s centenary celebrations continue, one event that stands out in importance is “I do Have A Belief”, a retrospective of the Wiradjuri artist,  outspoken grass roots activist and well-known Canberra identity, Kevin Gilbert (1933 to 1993). 

Currently showing at the Belconnen Arts Centre, the exhibit encompasses the diversity of Gilbert’s artistic presence – oil paintings, lino-prints, poetry manuscripts, and photographic murals, as well as other works previously unseen by the public.

Kevin Gilbert, Colonising species, 1989

Kevin Gilbert, Colonising species, 1989

The art itself is decidedly political, commenting on the social injustices and oppression of Aboriginal people since British Settlement, and calls for the acceptance of Aboriginal sovereignty.  The large-scale painting “Who Owns Australia” (1975)  superimposes traditional Indigenous symbols and iconography such as a kangaroo, an emu and two silhouetted tribal figures over a sun-drenched desertscape. The piece raises the question of land ownership, and is a poignant marker of the debate surrounding the now discredited doctrine of terra nullius.

One of the most pointed pieces on display is the coloured linocut “Colonising Species” (1989). The work 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. Like much of Gilbert’s work this piece resonates with contrasting symbolism.

While recent attention has been directed to the twentieth anniversary of the high court ruling of Mabo’s native title act, “I do Have A Belief” marks twenty years since the death and eighty years since the birth of another great indigenous activist. Gilbert was the first Aboriginal print-maker and the first published Aboriginal playwright and political writer in Australia. His legacy lives in his distinctive visual and verbal language, which Gilbert once described as “tucker for the people”.




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