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'Portraits by a window' 1990
Michael Riley’s beautiful black-and-white stills series, Portraits by a window, was shot at Boomalli Aboriginal Artist Co-operative’s Chippendale premises in 1990. Riley invited friends and their families to sit in front of a simple, paint-spattered backdrop on whatever chairs were available, lit by the suffused side-light from the large windows in the artspace premises. As one of those photographed, I remember sitting next to my father, Joseph, his arm resting around my shoulder, warm and protective. I was 24-years-old and within six years my father would be gone, but you would never have guessed that from the distinguished man that he appeared in that frozen moment.
Riley’s images are moving and so unaffected: Avril Quaill with her newborn daughter, Miya; Dorothy/Tudley Delaney, looking like a compatriot of early twentieth-century African-American writer, Zora Neale Hurston; Tracey Gray and Alice Haines, young dance students in their prime; Delores Scott, resembling a Modigliani sculpture; Charles Perkins and his doppelganger son, Adam, resplendent in their business suits; and so many others, graciously captured by Michael’s vision. Whereas the respective gazes of the women he photographed for the 1986 Aboriginal photography exhibition were searingly direct, in Hetti the subject is caught unawares. With her eyes closed in repose, the image conveys an intimate moment of reflection replicating the spiritual pose of the male subject in Darrell. These two images could be referencing moieties, the yin and yang of contemporary Indigenous life. Riley’s statement about his friend Hetti explained his fascination with beauty and urban-based Indigeneity:
Hetti is a good friend of mine, not a model and has beautiful cheekbones, beautiful face and shoulders … I didn’t do much setting up … Very glamorous, just the way she is … I just want to show young Aboriginal people living in the cities today; a lot of them are very sophisticated and a lot of them are very glamorous. A lot of them have an air of sophistication which you don’t see coming across in newspapers and [television] programs. I’m just talking about positive things really, positive images of Aboriginal people.
Portraits by a window1990 consisted of beautiful and sensitive photographs of the friends in his life. Riley once said that the best periods in his life had been: ‘Oh, meeting you and Hetti Perkins and everyone [at Boomalli]’. This was the time when his life and work in Sydney was expanding and coming together in the interesting direction he wanted it to go in. People were attractive, well-educated or very bright, interesting and talented. This was being appreciated and utilised, and there were opportunities to be taken. Riley both captured and personified this.
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