National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
14 July – 22 October 2006
The site where the National Gallery of Australia stands is on the traditional lands of the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people and I am pleased to pay tribute to the original peoples of this region.
Officially opened in 1982, the National Gallery of Australia is one of the newest fine art museums in Australia. Its holdings, however, date back to the late 1950s and include early recognition of the significance of work by Australia’s Indigenous artists.
As in other, older public art and socio-historical museums throughout Australia, the first Indigenous works acquired as works of art, not ethnographic objects, were watercolours from Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory. In 1959, pencil drawings and watercolours by the Hermannsburg school of watercolourists, including the renowned Arrernte artist, Albert Namatjira (1902–1959), were acquired for the national collection. Today, the National Gallery of Australia’s Indigenous collection spans nearly two centuries of Indigenous arts/cultural practice and consists of almost 5000 works, comprising bark paintings, paintings, sculpture, weavings, textiles, photomedia and works on paper. The earliest work, a shield from the south-eastern region of Australia, is dated to the early 1800s.
Photography and new media by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have been important components of this collection since the late 1980s. The exhibition, Re-take: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander photography (1998), highlighted the collecting work undertaken by both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Photography departments. Following its opening at the National Gallery of Australia, the exhibition toured nationally. Michael Riley’s work was an essential part of that exhibition and, since his work was first acquired in 1990, we have been building upon his representation in the collection.
Michael Riley: sights unseen is one of the most significant exhibitions of Indigenous art to be held at the National Gallery of Australia. A major retrospective of one of the country’s leading Indigenous contemporary artists, it is the first exhibition to focus on the career of an Aboriginal artist from the south-east of Australia. Previous retrospectives have honoured the work of Dr David Daymirringu Malangi (2004), Albert Namatjira (2002), Rover Thomas (Joolama) (1994) and George Milpurrurru (1993).
One of the most important contemporary Indigenous visual artists of the past two decades, Michael Riley’s contribution to the urban-based Indigenous visual arts industry was substantial. His film and video work challenged non-Indigenous perceptions of Indigenous experience, particularly those of the most disenfranchised communities in the eastern region of Australia. Over 20 years, he built a steady and consistent body of work, ranging from black-and-white portraiture through to film and video, conceptual work, and digital media.
Michael Riley: sights unseen reveals the prolific talents of a quiet observer, whose photomedia, video and film continue to have a profound effect on our contemporary representation and comprehension of Indigenous Australia. The exhibition and this accompanying publication bring together a comprehensive body of work, charting the vision and experience of one of the country’s most important Indigenous visual artists, and chronicling a period of intense cultural development and achievement. The exhibition and publication not only profile Riley’s most recognised photomedia, films and video work, but also present many images previously unseen in the public domain.
Significant projects require substantial funding, and we have been very fortunate to secure support for both the retrospective exhibition and the publication of this book in the form of a grant from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council. We have also received support-in-kind from the Michael Riley Foundation and Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative: the former organisation responsible for ensuring that Michael Riley’s legacy is maintained; the latter intrinsically linked with the life and career of one of its founding members and former Chairman.
The contributions from Michael’s many family members, friends and colleagues must be acknowledged – we greatly appreciate their support and enthusiasm. I also wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Dr Brian Kennedy, for his initial support for this project. Thanks also to all the staff of the National Gallery of Australia who contributed to the success of this project. I would also like to thank the staff of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Department, and Gael Newton, Senior Curator, International and Australian Photography, who has been an advisor to this significant project. Finally, I wish to thank the curator of this exhibition, Brenda L. Croft, Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Drawing as it does on her long friendship with Michael Riley, this project has been both an extremely personal and professional undertaking.
The exhibition has been generously sponsored by the newly formed National Gallery of Australia Council Exhibitions Fund, a bold initiative of this Gallery Council to bolster support the exhibition program.
We hope that Michael Riley: sights unseen will generate a greater awareness of the multi-faceted career of one of Australia’s most outstanding contemporary Indigenous artists. In doing so, the exhibition highlights the ongoing innovation of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual art and culture and the extraordinary contribution it makes to Australian life.
I loved Michael and still think of him many times everyday. He was my soul mate, ‘little brother’, uncle to my children and dear friend. When I think of Michael, I remember him driving me rather alarmingly to the hospital for the birth of my eldest child, Binni. I see his artistic spirit that he nurtured in my daughter, Willurai.
Michael was a funny, complex person. We would sit together for many hours, neither of us feeling the need to talk. As taciturn as he could be, we all adored him, as did our collective offspring. They picked up on his mischievousness. They all had a funny story about Uncle Micky. His lack of patience underpins most of them: like the time he was trying to book a cab on a voice-animated system – Michael yelling at the machine and slamming the phone down using language that could only be described as ‘blue’; or the time he was taking Ben, Binni and Willurai to the beach and got stuck on the roundabout near Sydney Airport. The kids still laugh their heads off about these incidences.
I met Michael in Sydney in 1977 – he was about 16 or 17. He became one of the ‘little brothers’ in a wonderful network of friends, colleagues, relatives and share houses. Little did I know then how close we would become, how talented he was, and how unfair and painfully short his life would be. Friendship with Michael was based on loyalty and reciprocity. Being friends with Michael was forever. He was a shocking gossip but knew how to keep important secrets.
Michael has an amazing family radiating out through Wiradjuri country on his father’s, Allen’s, side and Kamilaroi country on his mother’s, Dot’s, side. Dubbo and Moree were his towns.
There was an ‘otherness’ about this Wiradjuri–Kamilaroi man. Michael saw things we could not. This ‘otherness’ is so clear in his art, capturing a look, gathering light, reflecting pain, survival and challenge. The sheer beauty of Michael’s landscapes, portraits and films are all bound up in narratives of the most powerful kind.
It was from Michael Riley I learnt a fundamental element about Aboriginality and the making of art. He taught me it’s the making that’s important, not necessarily the monetary value of the finished product. It is the telling of a story about culture and our experience.
Michael Riley: sights unseen is about two things. It is about the gathering together of the main bodies of Michael’s work – it is about cloud (2000) and Sacrifice (1992) and all the other works that he is known and celebrated for. It is the public Michael Riley. It is also about stepping into the shoes of the private Michael. The person I spent the most time with, the person who took the photos of children and families hanging on our walls, sitting on dresser tops and in our drawers and photo albums. My family home is blessed with lots of Uncle Micky. One of my most treasured possessions is an old red t-shirt painted by Michael. It has travelled with me for 20 years.
Michael’s son Ben is 21. He also has a granddaughter, Janaya – she is five. I truly believe it was Michael’s love of Ben that kept him alive during some desperately grim times. There were lots of them. How well we got to know the Intensive Care Unit and the Dialysis Unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
Michael was not a terribly organised person. His wallet was testament to that, stuffed full of little bits of paper with people’s phone numbers on them. I gave him an address book once but to no avail. Similarly, negatives were scattered in numerous locations – they’re still turning up.
The Michael Riley Foundation has been established to take care of his legacy. I have the honour of being part of the Foundation. The Foundation knows we are dealing with precious things. The very fact that the Gallery has undertaken this retrospective is a testament to just how precious.
I want people to look at Michael Riley’s work and focus on just how beautiful it is. A beauty with, at its foundation, the ethereal man himself. I want people to be at ease. Think of Michael’s shy cheeky smile, his eyes lighting up at the sniff of gossip. His love of flash, white-linen shirts. His sense of humour and fun. Most of all, I want people to remember his enormous generosity and humility.
I will miss the beautiful big bunches of lilies he would bring me, when he knew I was feeling blue. My family misses him – we all do.
Michael would just love the fact that all of his work – the private and the public – has been gathered together by the National Gallery of Australia. Thank you to the National Gallery of Australia and everyone who has worked towards this wonderful celebration of not just Michael Riley’s work, but his life.
TOP 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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