Obituary: Michael Riley

Djon Mundine OAM

Feathers float—so do clouds, and dreams. Three weeks ago, a dream didn’t die but certainly dimmed when Aboriginal filmmaker-photographer Michael Riley lost the fight against renal disease after a number of years. That he enjoyed life there is no doubt, as he had fought his affliction and the odds right to the end. It inspired me, and will inspire me into the future.

Michael Riley was born on the Talbragar mission but lived in Dubbo until he finished school. His mother was a Gamilleroi woman from Moree and his father a Wiradjuri man from the Dubbo area. By his mid-teens, he was already making and printing black and white photos using a developing kit from the local chemist. “I was interested in the process—I was inquisitive. I just knew there were images I wanted to do.”

A line of sophisticated Aboriginal people come from the Dubbo and Talbragar ‘mission’ area on the junction of the Talbrager and Macquarie Rivers. They fall between, in Michael’s words, “the Rad Ab and the Trad Ab”, between those politically active marchers of the streets and the spiritual people sought out by new-agers and visiting backpackers. It was these Aboriginal people that Michael strove to highlight. He would count himself among them. His male relatives and friends nicknamed him ‘Elvis’ because of his slicked-back hair and stylish dress. This was a worldly art practitioner and person. His quiet, seemingly aloof manner actually belied a deep-thinking person of extreme warmth, humour and generosity. There were periods of silence where he was present physically but also as a strong and positive spirit—a very masculine thing.

One of my fondest memories is of visiting him early in his illness, when he’d come home from hospital. He asked me to stay for dinner. Even though invalid and on crutches, 10 minutes of shuffles produced a beautiful risotto meal.

From Dubbo, he became a carpenter’s apprentice in outer Sydney and went on to a photography course run by Bruce Hart at the Tin Sheds at Sydney University in the early 1980s. He followed Hart to be his technical assistant at Sydney College of the Arts. At this time he appeared in the groundbreaking Koori 84 exhibition. Spending the next few years at Rapport Agency in Sydney, he produced the Portraits by a Window series of his friends who were part of the amazingly creative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists’ scene he moved in.

His work was first really exhibited in the Aboriginal and Islander Photographers Exhibition at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney in 1986. These ‘urban’ Aboriginal artists who came to socialise and work together would go on to form the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Ko-operative, dispelling stereotypes of Aboriginal art as being only apolitical, spiritual narratives by old men living in the centre and north of Australia. All would go on to lead remarkable careers in the visual arts.

Michael’s first film, made in 1987 whilst he was completing a traineeship at Film Australia, was Boomalli: Five Koori Artists, an innovative exposé of a set of his co-members (Jeffrey Samuels, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Bronwyn Bancroft and Fiona Foley). In 1987, he worked as a trainee on Tracey Moffatt’s first film, Nice Coloured Girls.

From here he took off with the photo-filmic essays Sacrifice (1993), Fly Blown (1998) and his evocative short film Empire (1997). All these films deal with the broad but brutal issues of ‘black armband’-white blindfold, true facts of Australian colonial history—a colonialism beginning with cursory sightings, then violent exchanges, wars and massacres, followed by the saving and assimilation of the survivors by Christian missionaries. It is a history of ‘clearing the land’, of wiping clean and re-writing, of Aboriginal people being murdered or forced from the land and onto missions and reserves. The gun or the crucifix. Crosses, prayers, stigmata, dark fish, Bibles, water, cracked earth. The death of the environment with Christian overtones. Biblical plagues—droughts, locusts—a poisoning of the water. As rural industry physically takes the land, Christian zeal takes the soul.

Once you get beyond the coastal belt, your vision is divided between a wide horizon that you’d swear actually curves, and a sky so big you think you’re going to fall into it. In most of Michael Riley’s later work he would return to his community and this landscape again and again. This is the same landscape that Ivan Sen of the next generation of Aboriginal filmmakers would explore. Although travelling the world, Michael had a strong sense of community, often working with relatives and friends as subjects and assistants. He was an Aboriginal man through and through and always thought of his art as Aboriginal art.

He kept his life in separate compartments: his time with his son, his time with his family, his time with his friends and time with the art world. The work that was to be his last, Clouds, appears to be more personal and free. A floating feather, a sweeping wing, a vigilant angel, the cows from ‘the mission’ farm, a single Australian plague locust in flight, a comforting Bible and a graceful emblematic returning boomerang. The boomerang is really the only overtly Aboriginal image in the set and the locust one of the few native animals left that is visible and cannot be swept aside. It persists.

It is still a fact in some Aboriginal communities that by the time the generations of sons have reached 30 they have no male role models to guide them, owing to their fathers dying. To lose someone so gifted is a loss for all of us who knew him, and a loss to all who appreciate art. It’s interesting that Michael chose to avoid the word ‘dream’ in naming the series, avoiding glib connections to ‘Dreamtime’. What we see and sense in his work is the culmination of self-examination, a series of poetic photographic texts, increasingly poignant because of events in his personal life; these are dreams of childhood memories of Dubbo, of floating—release.

He will be sadly missed but leaves behind for us his incredible mark.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 53

© Djon Mundine; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004