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Without fanfare, Riley quietly, persistently, consistently, built an imposing body of work and a reputation. His last series, the otherworldly cloud, created in 2000, remains the best known of his prolific creative output. However, it would be remiss to consider this visually luscious series as Riley’s signature work, since it is but one facet of a multi-dimensional body of work created over two decades, drawing on the collective experiences of millennia.
For Riley, land was life. His roots were deep in the red and black soil of western and northwestern New South Wales – Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi traditional lands. His images reflect what he described as the ‘sacrifices Aboriginal people made to be Christian’. They resonate with loss, experienced not only by the individual but by entire Indigenous communities: ‘loss’ of culture and land in enforced, and sometimes embraced, ‘exchange’ for Christianity. cloud is Riley’s legacy and the work for which he is best known in Australia and overseas. It was his first series to move into digital manipulation and represents a natural progression from Sacrifice.
As his work gained increasing critical acclaim within Australia and overseas, as it soared in spirit, his body was failing him. cloud was selected for the 2002 Asia–Pacific triennial of contemporary art at Queensland Art Gallery. That same year, as part of the Festival of Sydney, cloud was flying high above Circular Quay. It was included in Photographica Australis, curated by Alasdair Foster for ARCO 2002, in Spain and its Asialink tour in 2003–2004, where his work was awarded a grand prize in the 11th Asian art biennale, Bangladesh.
Riley’s legacy is also the pride with which he invested his communities of Dubbo, Moree and Sydney. It is reflected in his family, friends and colleagues who were touched by him, his talent and his work, which remains with us. My recent visits to Dubbo and Moree were not only about recalling his presence: his spirit was there watching, in the company of the native animals – the brown snake, wedge-tail eaglehawks, echidna, wallaby, brolga, kookaburra and seemingly millions of bats that made themselves known. These totemic animals were ever watchful, either standing silently or circling overhead, like sentinels. He was there, along with his ancestors, in the wind that rustled the leaves of the trees under which I sat with his family and friends as we recalled his quietness, his observation, his wicked sense of humour, his love of gossip, his mentoring of others and his generosity of spirit.
The still images he created spoke to his films. This can most clearly be seen in the photographic series flyblown and cloud and their reflection in the sumptuous experimental film, Empire.
cloud appears as 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, referring to the cyclical swarms of locusts; a comforting Bible; and a graceful, emblematic, returning boomerang. The boomerang is really the only overtly Aboriginal image in the series and the locust is one of the few native species left that is visible and cannot be swept aside.
The Bible image, which appears in both the Sacrifice and cloud series, contains an ambiguity, being depicted as both discarded and floating, vision-like – although upside down – in the sky. Is it the sign of a true spiritual believer struggling with his belief, possibly a metaphor for the struggle of acceptance of the 'white' presence in his world.
In the simply superimposed images of cloud Riley was trying to minimalise things, to distil his ideas about physical reality and spirit. All are dichotomously connected to Dubbo and Riley, and are also universal. They are not about a place but a state, the surrealistic cow with mud and manure on its hoofs floating by.
In this, Riley’s final body of work, we see the image of a feather, lightly pending against a veiled ‘true-blue’, yet ethereal, Australian sky. This honest and just communication, absent ofego, was to dominate Riley’s practice. With his maverick minimalistapproach, his messages are clean, clear and sharp. In this way, Riley paradoxically exposed the complex layers, the realities and concerns of Aboriginal Australia. It was his need to rationalise and find peace with his personal history that drove the making of the cloud exhibition. Without knowing where the money, equipment, time or technicians would come from, Riley’s humour, resourcefulness and courage kept the creative process alive.
Filled with images that reference his spiritual and corporeal concerns, to me cloud epitomises Riley’s artistic voice. A voice where public and private merge within the sacred in an active quest to understand meaning. It is a quiet and contemplative body of work that reverberates with sadness and anger. While there are moments of humour and great elation, the images illustrate the world Riley inhabited and the work he still had left to finish.
The ability to find strength when he shouldn’t have is what informs cloud. It is a resilient, brave and gentle gaze full of longing, loss and mischief. A gaze that subverts social hypocrisy to create images that question, seduce and, above all, try to make sense of a life lived with love, loss and inequality.
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