Michael Riley (1960-2004) was a Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi photographer and filmmaker whose conceptual and documentary photographs and films mark an important shift in contemporary Aboriginal art and socio-political cultural developments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Riley created images which are now icons of Australian contemporary art.
Riley was a prominent member of an extraodinary generation, a generation of talented, often tertiary-educated, artists/activists whose pursuit of their chosen profession (art, literature, dance, acting, law, politics, cultural administration and academia) changed history through the advent of strong, positive voices speaking for themselves on their own terms against the prejudice of non-Indigenous Australia. These individuals, Riley’s family, friends and peers, are the subjects of his early portraits.
Riley’s body of photographic work is diverse. It includes traditional portraiture (Koori Art '84, NADOC ’86, Portraits by a Window, A common place: Portraits of Moree Murries and Yarns from Talbragar Reserve), social documentary (After 200 years), photo-collage (They call me niigarr) as well as a number of major conceptual/allegorical series (Sacrifice, Flyblown and Cloud). Lesser known series that focus on landscape also exist (Mission, Fence sitting and Spirit clouds). Riley’s voice, his sense of beauty and the hypnotic lucidity of his imagery is unmistakable amidst this diversity.
Religious imagery recurs in Riley’s work, the collective stain of the experience of life on reserves and missions where traditional language and culture was outlawed and Christianity installed by government policy and practice. Riley incorporated Christian symbols ambiguously into a broader visual metaphysics of landscape. Of this, Riley said, “I don’t try to put down the Christian religion or the Catholic religion at all. I just try to reflect on it, you know. Yes. What I don’t like about religion, is the hypocrisy. Not so much the religion itself, the way people use it in hypocritical ways. […] Aboriginal people were quite patronized, almost treated as children, to be assimilated.” (Michael Riley, unpublished interview with David Burnett on his inclusion in the Asia-Pacific triennial of contemporary art 2002, Queensland Art Gallery.)
In 1983, Michael Riley completed a Koori photography course at the Tin Sheds, a gallery and workshop at the University of Sydney, that compressed three years into a single year program. Following these studies he worked as a technician in the Photography Department at Sydney College of the Arts. Subsequent to his training in still photography, Riley undertook a two-year traineeship at the Australian Broadcasting Commission in producing and directing documentaries. In 1987 he was a co-founder of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artist Co-op in Sydney, alongside Brenda L. Croft, Tracey Moffatt, Avril Quaill, Bronwyn Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock, Fiona Foley, Fernanda Martins, Arone Raymond Meeks and Jeffrey Samuels.
Riley’s photographs and films have been included in major museum exhibitions and biennales in Australia and internationally, including Everywhen:The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, curated by Stephen Gilchrist, at Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, USA (2016); Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, and Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, curated by Stephen Gilchrist (2012); Half light: Portraits from Black Australia at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, curated by Hetti Perkins and Jonathan Jones (2009); Prism: Contemporary Australian art at the Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo (2006); Images: Contemporary photographs by Aboriginal artists, AAMU Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht (2004); Poetic Justice - the 8th Istanbul Biennale, curated by Dan Cameron (2003); Photographica Australis, Sala de Exposiciones del Canal de Isabell II, Madrid and the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney (2002); the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (2002); Beyond the pale: Contemporary Indigenous Art, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art at the Art Galley of South Australia, Adelaide, curated by Brenda L. Croft (2000); Biennale of contemporary art, Festival of Pacific Arts, Noumea (2000); Living here and now: Art and politics, Perspecta ’99 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, curated by Wayne Tunnicliffe and Hetti Perkins (1999).
Riley’s series of early black and white urban portraits were acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, and exhibited in full in 2014.
In 2006, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra hosted a posthumous retrospective of Riley’s work, Michael Riley: sights unseen, curated by Brenda L. Croft during her tenure as Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, which toured to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, venues in Queensland and Victoria, as well as to Riley’s home towns of Dubbo and Moree in regional New South Wales. A full-colour hard-cover 176 page catalogue was produced to accompany the exhibition. ABC Television produced a two-part series of the same name for ‘Message Stick’ in 2008.
Riley’s work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Western Australia as well as a number of regional and University galleries in Australia. International private collections include the Owen and Wagner Collection, the Alison and Peter W. Klein Collection and the Sir Elton John Collection. In Australia, a significant collection of Riley’s vintage prints is in the collection of Pat Corrigan AM.
In 2004, Riley won one of three grand prizes at the 11th Asian Art Biennial for his now iconic photographic series, Cloud (2000). The Musée du quai Branly, Paris, commissioned a large-scale permanent installation of Cloud in 2006, for the Australian Indigenous Art Commission curated by Croft and Perkins for the Australian Government.
Proceeds from sales of Michael Riley estate prints enable activities by the Michael Riley Foundation in Michael's memory as an extension of its role as custodian of his artistic legacy. The Trustees of the Michael Riley Foundation are Hetti Perkins, Anthony 'Ace' Bourke and the Hon. Linda Burney MP.