Michael Riley

I was always interested in images and liked seeing things around me differently. I remember lying down in the front yard one day and looking up at the telegraph poles and lines, the power cables going across, cutting across the sky and almost cutting through the clouds; looking at it and isolating it; looking at the simplicity and at things in depth and from a different perspective. MR

Michael Riley’s groundbreaking photographic work and visionary films have made a profound impact on Australian art. A Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi man, born in 1960 on the Talbragar Reserve outside of Dubbo in New South Wales, Riley challenged non-Indigenous perceptions of the Indigenous experience in Australia through his artistic practice. Bodies of work such as the two separate portrait series which honour both his mother’s and his father’s home towns of Moree and Dubbo offer poignant insights into rural Aboriginal communities; a rare perspective that only someone like Riley could provide. These images, not only treasured by the communities they depict, hold international currency and significance. Other ‘conceptual’ photographic series interpret the unique truths of an Indigenous society Riley was very much a part of, communicating and reflecting reality in a universal language. Born and brought up in the country, Riley moved to Sydney in his teens. In 1982 he formally established his longstanding interest in photography at a workshop at Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, and later that decade went on to show in the first exhibition of Indigenous photographers, curated by Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke and titled NADOC ’86 exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander photographers, at Aboriginal Artists Gallery, Sydney. Although a landmark exhibition on the whole, Riley’s contribution remains iconic and has since become synonymous with the exhibition. Riley, along with nine other urban Indigenous artists (Bronwyn Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock, Brenda L Croft, Fiona Foley, Fernanda Martins, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Avril Quaill and Jeffrey Samuels), created Australian art history with the foundation of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Chippendale, Sydney, in 1987. The organisation’s forming represented a turning point with Boomalli staging successful and dynamic shows; it still operates in Sydney today. Riley’s engagement with Boomalli reflected his continued support for young and developing artists throughout his life. Riley’s artistic practice spanned portraiture, social documentary, conceptual photography, and film and documentary. Beginning his fine art practice with black-and-white photographs, Riley soon expanded his artform to incorporate large-scale colour images, reflecting the influence of film and video work, a parallel practice to his photographic work. Riley passed away in 2004 at the age of 44. In 2006 his achievements in and contribution to art were celebrated with the retrospective exhibition Michael Riley: Sights unseen, curated by Brenda L Croft and held at National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The exhibition toured to Monash Gallery of Art, Wheelers Hill, in regional Victoria, to Dubbo Regional Gallery and Moree Plains Gallery, both regional New South Wales, to the Museum of Brisbane, Queensland, and ended its national tour in 2008 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Today Michael Riley’s work continues its relevance within Australia and abroad. Since his passing, his work has been exhibited in group exhibitions such as Half light: Portraits from Black Australia 2008–09, Art Gallery of New South Wales, and has inspired and featured within performances like the 2010 Bangarra Dance Theatre production Of earth and sky: Riley. Michael Riley’s full CV available

National Gallery of Australia essays

Brenda L Croft, ‘Up in the sky, behind the clouds’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 17–43. Available

Gael Newton, ‘The elders: Indigenous photography in Australia’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 47–56. Available

Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke, ‘In retrospect’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 59–60. Available

Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘The meek Michael Riley’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 67–73. Available

Avril Quaill, ‘Snapshots, Sydney and Melbourne: Avril Quaill’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 102–103. Available

Destiny Deacon, ‘Snapshots, Sydney and Melbourne: Destiny Deacon’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 106–107. Available

Rachel Perkins, ‘Frame-by-frame, film: Rachel Perkins’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, p 123. Available

Djon Mundine, ‘Wungguli, Shadow: Photographing the Spirit and Michael Riley’, in Brenda L Croft, Michael Riley: Sights unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp 125–133. Available .

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