Written by Wiradjuri woman and AIATSIS Step Up participant Ruth Gilbert.
Gracing the corridors of AIATSIS are a series of linoprints from the 1960s onwards by the late, great Wiradjuri artist, poet and writer, Kevin Gilbert. Kevin (my Dad) was noted as the first Aboriginal person to create linoprint works. These works are now held in a number of cultural institutions in Australia and overseas, including a print that forms part of the permanent exhibition in the National Gallery of Australia. AIATSIS purchased a complete set of prints some years ago, with the exception being some very rare prints that were exhibited at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra, in 2013.
These linoprints continue to resonate a central message: the totality of connection to land that is uniquely Aboriginal. They are also tangibly spiritual, cultural and political works. Some of my favorite works in the series are Christmas Eve in the Land of the Dispossessed (1968), a stark reminder of how Aboriginal people were isolated in their own land, but where the essence of the belonging still remains. Others include My Father’s Studio and Lineal Legends (both 1965). These pieces were the first works to depict spirit figures in the sky, and the radiant use of wavy lines became a strong feature throughout his art.
My most loved piece in this set is the powerful and timeless colour linoprint, Colonising Species (1989). This piece is hung in the entry corridor to the AIATSIS library, for all to see. It is a visually balanced and beautiful piece, but it is also politically charged and a highly symbolic reminder of the injustices that have wrought upon Aboriginal people in Australia since colonization. Dad used every platform available to him to call for justice and a Sovereign Treaty for Aboriginal people. These included art, playwriting and poetry through to his iconic political writings, such as the groundbreaking ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice, the Law and Land’, ‘Because a White Man’ll never do it, and Living Black.
My Dad described his evolution as an artist in a speech at the National Gallery of Australia in 1992:
As a child sitting, drawing in the ashes of the campfires with twigs and charcoal, aware of the old pieces of tin, hessian bag and canvas that formed our shanty, our humpies, I never even dreamed of being an artist. I was very much aware of the colonial attitudes, the injustice of having my land, Wiradjuri land, stolen from us, my people forced to live in refugee situations, on travelling stock reserves forbidden to be in the white township after dark, the tens of decades of massacre, oppression, abuse of our human rights.
In 1965, mature, I saw art and writing as a way to communicate. My Father’s Studio was my first lino print. Carved with tools I’d made from a spoon, gem blades, nails on a piece of old, brittle lino off the prison floor. I wanted to show the natural pride and completeness of the Aboriginal artist, the cave, the art, the landscape…
Our art is political, as every action of Aboriginal people is political, and it must be political and always remain political and reflect the political feeling; until we grow together, until people do not need to make very hard separate statements in their art in order to say: Hey! We are together in this land. We are building the land on the basis of justice for everyone and for all people…
AIATSIS holds this collection of linoprints in esteem, recognizing their value as a part of the diverse and interesting Art and Artefact Collection. They also hold Dad’s books, some of which are now rare and out of print. There are family photographs located in the Pictorial Collection, oral sound recordings and filmed recordings in the Moving Image section of the AIATSIS collections. AIATSIS is a valuable resource for my family, and we have had a long association with it.
This is also true for many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and families around the country. Cherished stories, family, language and archival material have been entrusted to AIATSIS for safekeeping, so that they may be available now and into the future. I feel very proud to be a part of an organization that has such a strong commitment to preserve the precious cultural wisdom of the world’s oldest continuing culture.
See Ruth explain some of the detail in Colonising Species (1989) to Jack Thompson in the video below.
Watch the rest of the tour with Jack Thompson.