Michael Riley - - -
The Extraordinary Mister Riley (Wiradjuri)
The photographs from Michael Riley’s work Cloud are enigmatic
poems, containing allusive meanings, shot against the full colour and
intense light of an Australian sky.
And they are just lovely pictures . . .
I love these photographs . . . they are soft. I mean, the colours are
soft, like chalk. And they are a mysterious riddle.
A floating cow?
A floating bible, or a thrown bible; the crucifix is upside down.
A bird’s wing, an eagle’s wing, disembodied — is it
dead? Or flying — against that blue Aussie sky.
A feather, alone, so sharp, we can see the grain, like netting.
An angel, all white with bowed head — obscured by its stone/marble
A boomerang, finely shaped, its cutting edge contrasts purposefully
against that blue sky. A killing boomerang?
A locust, a pest to farming and industry — or a spirit messenger
to the earth’s natural cycle.
Beauty and death, a dichotomy of nature versus destruction. Can cows
Michael Riley’s career as an exhibiting artist spans about 18
years, beginning with the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Contemporary
Aboriginal Art’ at the Bondi Pavilion Community Cultural Centre
in 1983. This exhibition was important in that it brought together Indigenous
artists who were working in photography. Since that time, Riley has
extended his practice to work as a director of film, video and television.
He has directed over 15 films and videos including the stunning Empire
1997, which is also included in this exhibition.
Michael Riley as an artist is also an enigma. He is an artist who works
in photography — is also an Aborigine — is an Aborigine
who is also a director of films — is a director who also works
with sound, image, music. He is a Wiradjuri man, a father, father-in-law,
grandfather — who works as an artist, and lives in Sydney.
On a recent road-trip I drove through Riley’s ancestral country,
where the traditional custodians are the Wiradjuri people. Along the
way, we counted 15 road-kills.1 We counted mostly ‘roos: kangaroos
and wallabies. In Wiradjuri country one finds the large red kangaroo
and the smaller red-necked wallaby and swamp wallaby. We also counted
smaller furry and feathered things squashed beyond identification. I
am reminded here of Michael’s earlier photographs in his ‘Flyblown’
series exhibited at the 1999 Venice Biennale.
Known as the Central Western Plains region, Wiradjuri country is an
area of undulating hills and broad valleys, creeks and fertile grasslands
— cattle country. For some 50 000 years the Wiradjuri nation inhabited
this very fertile area west of the Great Dividing Ranges, covering approximately
600 000 square kilometres. The size, position and natural wealth of
Wiradjuri country meant that its people have played a major role in
Indigenous affairs for the past 200 years, since the coming of early
invading forces and European settlement.
The site for Dubbo was decided in the 1840s when a store was opened
on the banks of the Macquarie River. The settlement became a stopping
place for herds of cattle being driven overland to the southern state
of Victoria. After conflict, war and invasion the area was cleared,
farmed with cotton, wheat, sheep and beef cattle. The Wiradjuri, having
survived smallpox, massacres, poisoning of watercourses and the Christian
missionary influence, remain in the district today. 2
The reticence of our older generation to speak confidently and openly
about their history is fading. Michael Riley’s work in film and
photography over the years has been a part of the process among Indigenous
artists of ‘getting their stories told’. His is an enduring
and poetic expression of Indigenous struggle and human sensitivity.
Avril Quaill is Associate Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, at the
Queensland Art Gallery
1 A ‘road-kill’ is a dead native animal that has been hit
by a moving vehicle on the road.
2 Lynette Riley-Mundine, ‘Talbragar Reserve’, in Yarns from
the Talbragar Reserve: Stories by the Original Inhabitants and Former
Residents: Photographs by Michael Riley [exhibition catalogue], Dubbo
Regional Gallery, Dubbo, 1999, unpaginated.
3 Koori, Gurri or Koorie: an Aborigine, Aboriginal man or Aboriginal
person. (Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press,
4 Boomalli artists subsequently opened a permanent venue and gave a
voice to urban and rural Indigenous artists who had been largely ignored
by mainstream galleries. A younger generation of Boomalli artists continue
to hold exhibitions at the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative
A version of this essay was originally
published in Indicium: Identity in Australian Contemporary Photomedia
[exhibition catalogue], Penrith Regional Gallery and The Lewers Bequest,
Emu Plains, NSW, 2001. Reproduced with kind permission.
This essay was originally published in
the catalogue APT 2002: Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art,
Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, 2002. Reproduced with kind permission.
Courtesy of the Artist and the Australian Broadcasting
4 of 10 inkjets prints on banner paper, ed. 1/10 125 x 86cm each