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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'Welcome to my Koori world [Delores’ Koori world]' 1993

Michael Riley and Destiny Deacon had worked together before on numerous satirical projects during the 1990s: a short sat-com (as in satirical-comedy) series for Blackout on ABC TV, Delores’ Koori World (1992), and An afternoon in Brunswick (1993).

Riley’s videos with Deacon find a way to go to the heart of Aboriginal Australia by cutting through any expectations we might have over what Aboriginal people look like, how they behave, what their dreams are made of, what they eat, drink and listen to. In Welcome to my Koori world and I don’t wanna be a bludger, Deacon takes on various roles – cook, poet, wife, mother, bludger – in order to reveal the inadequacy of categorisation.

'I don’t wanna be a bludger' 1999
Victoria Lynn

Watching I don’t wanna be a bludger is haunting because the image of Riley disabled in a wheelchair predicts his own failing health a few years later.

At the 1999 exhibition Living here now: Australian perspecta at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I don’t wanna be a bludger (1999) was shown on a video monitor. Viewers stopped to let the video have its time; they slowly opened up to the experience of viewing. The video allowed the gallery space to become what it should be: a social space. Viewers openly giggled and laughed at Riley’s film. Throughout the video one is uncertain about one’s own response – tears and laughter seem equally appropriate to each scene. However, what remains almost unbearable are Riley’s cameo performances.

Riley plays the part of Harold, a disabled cousin of Delores (Deacon), who visits her house in Brunswick where Delores is throwing him a birthday party. Riley has thick, black-rimmed glasses, wears a pink shirt and bow tie, trembles in his wheelchair, and is generally at the mercy of this afternoon escapade in Delores’ Koori world. In the video, Riley’s camera lovingly envelopes the character of Delores, allowing her the freedom to dig herself into more and more strife as she attempts a career in fortune telling, has an excruciating interview with a social worker, applies for a study grant and babysits three children at the end of a long day trying to make something of her life. Riley’s camera stays with Delores’ improvisatory humour, sometimes almost daring Deacon to go further. As a collaborative team of writer and director, Deacon and Riley find in this work an exquisite balance between excess and narrative; satire and kitsch; improvisation and script.

The key themes of this video are how we treat the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ and how we respond to difference. The larger-than-life Delores meets her match with the silent, helpless Harold. Delores’ humour depends on reaction: as an audience, we wait in anticipation for what she will say or do next, and how her chosen foe will respond. Harold is, however, Delores’ foil: all he can do is dribble. As she spoons green jelly into a quivering mouth, gives him a box of magic tricks with which he clearly can’t play, and dances with him around the lounge room, her slapstick humour is met with pathos. The ‘troublemaker’ comes face-to-face with the ‘hapless victim’ in a sequence that has audiences laughing aloud.

Deacon’s bitter-sweet jokes and her incredulous undermining of bureaucratic authorities are funny and breathtakingly audacious. It is this tragicomic balancing act that brings these two great artists together. Deacon and Riley reclaim ‘politically incorrect’, archival cultural forms in order to forge a larger and more complex understanding of black identity.

The media frequently depicts Indigenous people in perpetually negative circumstances, often as either ‘making trouble’ or being ‘bludgers’. Aboriginals are regularly referred to in terms of types, in dehumanised and degrading language.  Deacon and Riley’s characters use the devices of satire and humour, through the conventions of the soap opera and reality television, to utterly unravel what it means to be an Indigenous person in the Australian suburbs. We are faced with a complex and varied scenario, one that makes fun of stereotypes in the most politically incorrect way possible. In this video, everyone is ‘mistreated’ to one degree or another. Delores has no empathy for anyone, including cousin Harold or the youngsters she is babysitting. She views the welfare system with a wry and cynical attitude, almost revelling in the tap dance she has with the welfare officers.

'Blacktracker' 1996
In 1996 Riley brought the story of his grandfather’s life to the screen in Blacktracker, which he wrote and directed when he worked with ABC Television’s Aboriginal Programs Unit. Tracker Riley’s life ‘encompassed a period of great oppression in the history of Aboriginal people, but [his] legendary skills and deep humanity lifted him above the ignorance of the times. The film, which Riley worked on with many family members including his cousin, researcher Bernadette Yhi Riley, remains a source of great pride for the Wiradjuri community in Dubbo. In turn, Blacktracker was the inspiration for One night the moon (2001), directed by Rachel Perkins – Riley’s colleague and co-director of the Indigenous film company Blackfella Films – and produced under the auspices of mdTV (Music Drama Television) for SBS Television.

Throughout the mid 1990s, Riley worked for ABC and SBS Television, completing a series of documentaries, including Blacktracker (1996) and Tent boxers (1997) for the ABC, and The Masters (1996) for SBS. The latter remains the only sit-com portraying contemporary Indigenous urban life produced in Australia, and the cast included Destiny Deacon, Lillian Crombie and Lee Madden. A number of projects were developed through Blackfella Films. In 1996–97 Riley was commissioned by Sheryl Connors, Aboriginal Education Officer at the Australian Museum, to produce a series of portraits of eminent Indigenous people based in Sydney. This series is displayed in the Indigenous Australians Gallery of the museum, and the rapport between the photographer and his subjects is evident.

The images in the exhibitions Yarns from the Talbragar 1999 and A common place: portraits of Moree Murries 1991 are reflected in the people and the places in the films Blacktracker (1996) and Tent boxers (1997). These are Riley’s mob and his films are about their world.

'Tent boxers' 2000
Moree holds different memories for different generations. The older generation – those of Riley’s parents’ age – fondly recall the dances, informal get-togethers and major events, such as trips to the local agricultural show to watch the touring boxing troupes, which often included many local Aboriginal men. For many young Aboriginal men, boxing was an alternative to seeking work as a fencer, shearer, wheat bailer, station-hand or itinerant seasonal worker, and it brought the added glamour of attracting young Aboriginal women. Riley recreated this world in his documentary Tent boxers (1997), directed while at the Aboriginal Programs Unit at ABC Television.

In Riley’s films and videos there is an accumulative, unforced style of editing that slowly and deliberately builds a picture. He can switch from short fragments to long sequences, in order to build up a momentum. The short sequences have as much power and meaning as the longer ones. In this, we see the photographer at work within the structure of the moving image. As such, one comes to love the characters in Riley’s films, whether they are real or fictional, because we are encouraged to share their stories and journeys, past and present. This is as true for comic Delores, as it is for the men and women interviewed in the documentary Tent boxers (1997).

'Malangi: a day in the life of a bark painter' 1991
In 1991 two very different but equally important films were released. Malangi highlighted the achievements of one of the country’s most renowned bark painters and central Arnhem Land artists and statesmen, Dr David Malangi. Riley travelled to Arnhem Land to meet with and film Malangi in his traditional homeland, and the film resonates with the empathy and mutual respect of the film-maker and the subject. It is a beautiful film, capturing the dignity and honour of a great artist. Riley never lost his respect for Aboriginal elders.

'A passage through the aisles' 1994
Interspersed with these seminal films, Riley also produced short educational films, experimental works and music clips for friends and colleagues. Included in these works are: Breakthrough: Alice (1989), an anti-racism short film made for the Department of Education, Employment and Training about the life of a young urban-based Aboriginal woman, Alice Haines; Frances (1990), a film about his close friend and fellow film-maker, Frances Peters-Little, which exhibits Warhol-ish influences in the ‘film test’ feel of the footage; music clips for Indigenous singers – Starlit bushes and Mother Earth (1992); A passage through the aisles (1994), about the childhood experiences of his dear friend, Linda Burney; and Songlines (1998).

'Dreamings: the art of Aboriginal Australia' 1988
The late 1980s and early 1990s were an extremely dynamic time for Riley, as if he knew that ill health would strike him soon. In 1987–88 he directed Dreamings: the art of Aboriginal Australia to accompany a groundbreaking exhibition of the same name, which received critical acclaim at the Asia Societies Gallery in New York.

Riley had the ability to engage with artists, quietly observing that creative space to see what emerged and then shaping it into a series of poignant and disturbing images.

'Boomalli: five Koorie artists' 1988
Brenda L Croft

In 1988 Riley presented his first film, Boomalli: five Koorie artists, which he made for Film Australia. Riley was one of those people around whom different worlds revolved: he became an axis for many who, like him, had travelled to Sydney from other places to live and work. He was instrumental in establishing Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, working particularly closely with Avril Quaill, another founding member whom he had met in 1984 at Sydney College of the Arts. Boomalli was established in 1987 in Chippendale when he and other visual artists, including Bronwyn Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock, Brenda L Croft, Fiona Foley, Fernanda Martins, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Avril Quaill and Jeffrey Samuels, decided to set up an Indigenous-operated artspace.

At the opening event of Boomalli, the room was crowded with Indigenous actors, dancers, writers, musicians, politicos, representatives from various sectors – such as health and education – and others from the Sydney community. It was an amazing time and place for Indigenous arts and culture. The collective debates raged about urban-based Indigenous art and culture, and this new wave of extraordinary artists articulated passionately and creatively that the renaissance of urban Indigenous culture had arrived. Riley captured all this in Boomalli: five Koorie artists.

This period was also notable for the collaborations between artists and there were many occasions when we all were involved in each other’s creative works. It could be said that all Aboriginal art is autobiographical in the sense of linking people, land, environment, and history.

Riley communicated with ease and confidence from behind the lens in both film and photography. The line that runs between his duel practices is a key to understanding the significance of his poetic messages. This was his modus operandi, the conduit between him and the world. From this objective position, Riley’s critical eye distilled images and created film and photography that were often in conceptual parallel. This can be seen in his portraiture and documentary work of the 1980s and 1990s, which include his discerning studio black-and-white photographs of the chic, avant-garde Sydney Aboriginal community, Michael’s milieu. Complementing these ‘urban’ works are his onsite studio and open cast-call photographic documentation of his mother’s and father’s rural communities of Moree and Dubbo respectively. The films he made at this time, including Boomalli: five Koorie artists (1988) and Quest for country (1993), corresponded with these works. What significantly underpins this period of work is Riley’s family and social networks, along with his unstated sense of belonging. These notions come forth to convey simple messages of the beauty, elegance and strength of the Aboriginal community.

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