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Michael Riley

The Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist, Michael Riley, produced an extensive body of work including black and white portraiture, video, film, conceptual art and digital photography before his untimely death in 2004. His portraits of his family and community from the 1980s and early 1990s are marked by an intimacy and warmth that challenges mainstream representations of Aboriginal people. In contrast to the traditions of photojournalism and ethnographic photography, Riley photographed his subjects in a neutral space that emphasized their individuality, beauty and dignity.

Riley’s later series, Sacrifice (1992) and Flyblown (1998), are reflections on the relationships between Christianity and colonization. The fifteen images in Sacrifice address the loss of language, culture and connection that accompanied the push of Aboriginal people onto reserves and missions in the name of protection and assimilation. The symbol of the cross first appeared in Sacrifice along with other potent Christian imagery such as headstones, black hands bearing the stigmata and dead fish lying on the dry earth. Flyblown was shot during the filming of Riley’s Empire (1997) and recalls the imagery of that film. Riley’s photographs of crucifixes, a dead bird lying on the cracked earth and a bible floating in murky water speak to the impact of Christianity upon Aboriginal peoples and the gradual poisoning of their lands.

Riley’s final series, Cloud (2000), marks his move into digitally manipulated imagery. In each photograph a single boomerang, cow, bird wing, bible or feather floats against wisps of clouds and a blue sky. This poetic and contemplative series is perhaps Riley’s most well-known, and simultaneously alludes to a sense of loss, endurance and transcendence.