DETAIL: Michael RILEY, 'Untitled from the series cloud [feather]' Cloud series Feather 2000, printed 2005 Photograph chromogenic pigment print Ed: 1/5 NGA 2005.294.5, Reproduced courtesy of the Michael Riley Foundation and VISCOPY, Australia

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'NADOC ’86 exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander photographers' and early portraits
Up in the sky, behind the clouds
Brenda L Croft

Michael Riley was one of those people around whom different worlds revolved: he became an axis for many of us who, like him, had traveled to Sydney from other places to live and work. He was instrumental in establishing Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Ko-operative (later Co-operative) in late 1987, working particularly closely with Avril Quaill, another founding member whom he had met in 1984 at Sydney College of the Arts. Avril was also a subject in Riley’s earliest portraits, which were first exhibited in NADOC ’86 exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander photographers at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery, Sussex Street, Sydney, in September 1986. Avril’s and Michael’s works, both featuring Kristina Nehm as a subject, were reproduced alongside each other in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Koorie art ’84.

Another young photographer and filmmaker, Tracey Moffatt, who was working ahead of Riley in the dual media, was also a centre of activity at this time, for it was she who invited Riley and others to be a part of the landmark exhibition NADOC ’86 exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander photographers, which she curated with the assistance of Anthony (Ace) Bourke. Riley’s image of his cousin Maria (Polly) Cutmore, which was hung in the exhibition, has become a classic image of the time and a print was acquired by renowned Australian photographer Max Dupain.

I’m just trying to break away from the normal, everyday image of Aboriginal people and putting it up on a wall so people can see them. I’ve sold about nine pictures: Darrell, Maria (Polly), Kristina, one of Avril. These are 20” x 24” prints on Record Rapid [fibre-based paper]. Actually Max Dupain bought one of Maria (Polly), which was good to have him come up and admire a photo of mine and like it enough to buy it. It was very flattering, really ... I think he saw it at Glen Murcutt’s house who’d bought one of Maria (Polly) and Kristina.

Maria (Polly) is a natural beauty, without any makeup, beautiful neck, eyes.

Avril is very soft, quietly sophisticated.

Michael Riley, ‘Liking what I do’, interview with Andrew Dewdney (1989), in Racism, representation and photography, Chippendale: Inner City Education Centre, 1993, pp. 141–4.

The elders: Indigenous photography in Australia
Gael Newton

The first contemporary art exhibition of work exclusively by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander photographers took place in Sydney in September 1986 as part of NADOC ’86, a week-long event celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Australia’s Indigenous people.Titled NADOC ’86 exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander photographers, the exhibition was held at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Clarence Street, Sydney, and included some 60 photographs by Mervyn Bishop, Brenda L Croft, Tony Davis, Ellen José, Darren Kemp, Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley, Christopher Robinson, Ros Sultan and Terry Shewring.All were influenced by the general excitement in these years about photography as a youthful, contemporary art form; one also seen as an accessible and immediately responsive form of witness. As well, these years saw a resurgence of ‘the personal is political’ activism and liberalism of the 1960s–70s. The embrace in the 1970s of marginalised and diverse cultures also intersected with the pluralism of postmodernism in the 1980s, encouraging borrowings of past imagery and cross-referencing between mediums.

While not the product of a tight, pre-existing ‘group’ or movement per se, the NADOC ’86 exhibition was strategic and savvy, successfully positioning the work in the art gallery scene. Wider issues, the focus of all works, were embodied in a series of individually differentiated, deft, sophisticated or stylish manners. Each exhibitor subtly undermined the deadweight legacy of ethnographic documents and negative media stereotypes.

The works on display in the NADOC ’86 show ranged from reportage to manipulated images, some with a sharp political edge. Others were remarkable for their lack of bombast.

The NADOC ’86 show, however, marked the beginning of a public profile within the art world for contemporary Indigenous photographers.

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