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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'They call me niigarr'
Up in the sky, behind the clouds
Brenda L Croft

They call me niigarr was Riley’s last exhibition at the Hogarth Galleries. His most overtly political exhibition, it was also his least successful in terms of the public’s response. The series was also included in Abstracts: new Aboriginalities, which was exhibited at Spacex Gallery, Exeter, and undertook a regional tour in Britain in 1996–97. The exhibition’s title, They call me niigarr, was a pun on the language group, Niigarr, of the subject – David Prosser, dressed in a suit and bow tie. The artist’s statement accompanying the work was Riley at his most outspoken:

The exhibition is about racism. Racism comes in many forms. It can be blatant, it can be hidden, patronising, and plain demoralising. For many Aboriginal people the result of racism has been all these things. Names such as these are not intentionally meant to be offensive. Non-Aboriginal people joke as they use these words. The words and images of this exhibition come from my childhood experiences with racism – experiences shared by my people.

Art films

'Empire' 1997

In 2003 cloud and Empire were selected for Poetic justice: 8th international Istanbul biennale. It was a career highlight that secured Riley’s international reputation. The universality of his imagery in Empire was something everyone could relate to. Empire was commissioned by Rhoda Roberts for 1997’s Festival of the Dreaming program of 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee (SOCOG). Arguably, it can be considered as the final work in a series comprising Poison, Quest for country, Eora and Empire. Poison and Eora comment on the losses and dreams of urban-based Indigenous people, and Quest and Empire trace the connections with Indigenous peoples traditional lands.

Empire shows scenes of a decayed, overworked and desolated landscape that seems both parched and scarred. The harshness of this environment is multiple. At one level it must contend with the extremes of nature, the ease with which fire spreads through the bush, or the tendency for drought to be followed by flood. Overlaying the signs of natural tension in the landscape are the scars that have followed the paths of Western colonisation.

By focusing on the ecological damage that went hand-in-hand with the frontier myth of settlement and which was paralleled by the drive to civilise and convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity, Riley was able to highlight the stunning contradictions of contemporary Aboriginal experience. Riley’s subtle juxtapositions between the ruins of the land and fragments of both Christian and Indigenous cultures suggest the need for a new way of thinking about reconciliation. Rather than rejecting Christianity, he makes us think about the gap between Christian values and the legacy it produced, or rather in the social and political whirlwind in which it was embroiled.

The complexity of Riley’s approach is made more evident when you consider the relationship between the music and the images in his video Empire. Images of the landscape range between intense close-ups and wide, open horizon shots that seem to be taken from the sky. The viewer is taken from an insect’s perspective to the bird’s-eye view. This gives the video a sublime and omniscient gaze. The music is also a contemporary variation of elegiac church music. Together they lift us into the realm of the gods but also drop us into the despair of mortal tragedy.The tone of Empire encompasses a love of the landscape, a respect for its harshness, a mistrust of colonial influences and an ambivalence towards Christianity.

'Poison' 1991
Poison, a highly innovative experimental film that received the Golden Tripod Award and the Bronze Award for Best Short Television Drama at the New York Film Festival in 1991, was based on the reporting of a number of tragic heroin overdoses of young girls in the Aboriginal community centred around ‘The Block’ in Eveleigh Street, Redfern. Riley had read an article titled ‘Seven little Australians’ in Rolling Stone magazine, which presented the bleak and sorrowfully curtailed lives of a group of young Aboriginal teenage girls, afflicted by the influx of narcotics into the community. Poison features Lydia Miller, Lillian Crombie, Rhoda Roberts, Binni and Willurai Burney, and another of our treasured community, Russell Page, the gifted younger brother of Stephen Page, who died in 2002. Another important collaborator who worked with Riley on this project was Joe Hurst, who designed the set – they were friends from school days and were also artistic contemporaries.

Prior to the 1980s, alcohol and cannabis were the most insidious drugs affecting Indigenous communities. A cannabis shortage, coupled with the decreasing cost of ‘smack’, opened up horrible new tracks – literally – to personal oblivion and cultural destruction for the lost kids of urban-based Aboriginal communities. The demographics had changed: when Riley took the journey from Dubbo to Sydney, it was an optimistic pathway, one where you were meeting up with and being joined by your mob, achieving things together. You might not finish that apprenticeship but there were other options and people willing to take a chance on you, support you and encourage you.

By the time of Poison these possibilities seemed to have vanished: the roads were now dead-ends for those young kids whose lives should have mirrored ours.

The ‘poison’ referred to in the title of Riley’s film is not only the consequence of drug and alcohol abuse, but also the ways in which Western society has failed Aboriginal people. Poison has no dialogue: the entire film relies on sound, movement and a shift between black and white, and colour for meaning. The film oscillates between a high-key colour stage set, where Aboriginal men, women and children sit by a lagoon, in harmony and visual symmetry, and black-and-white sequences in a bar and its urban, gritty surrounds. The same characters occupy both places. There is a contrast between an atmosphere of celebration and joyousness in the Indigenous landscape, and the sense of loss, lack of control, and hopelessness in the urban environment. In this place of confusion and substance abuse there is no guidance from the elders, no familial connections, no love, no belief. The Christian cross and Bible appear in momentary flashes throughout the film.

Opinions were divided about the influence on Poison of Tracey Moffatt’s Night cries: a rural tragedy, made in 1989, and tensions existed between the two artists for some time. The irony was that Riley and Joe were far more influenced by 1960s sci-fi television series, particularly Star Trek, but given the social intimacies of urban-based Indigenous artists throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was not surprising that ideas and influences were subliminally shared and exchanged, rejected and consumed by many of us.

Riley’s work at this point developed ideas he initiated with Poison, crossing into the ethereal, bringing his fascination with Christianity and symbolism to the fore, and letting any overt Indigenous reference sink into the layering effect of a potent body of work. There is timelessness to the images or, perhaps, a hint of the earliest representations of the photographic process, a tinge of gothic gloom and universality that could place them as being from anywhere. Yet they are rooted in the Aboriginal history of this country.

[Poison] deals with substance abuse, like heroin and alcohol, and also with self-abuse. It also deals with Aboriginal people dealing with 20th century White Australia, and with the hypocrisies of religion, of Catholicism. It follows the lives of four young Aboriginal people, drug addicts, who live in a squat. The film follows them around for twenty-four hours looking at what they went through, how they got to being drug addicts … It’s a range of images. I experimented with manipulating images and seeing how they transferred to a screen, like still photographs in a movie situation with the story put to it. The film is a visual film, there’s about four lines of dialogue at the beginning, the rest is all visual and sound effects. I’m more of a visual person than a writer. I think Aboriginal people are basically visual people … a lot of people were fascinated by [the film], a lot of people really liked it, some didn’t understand at all.
Michael Riley, interview with Sandra Phillips (1992), in Racism, representation and photography, Chippendale: Inner City Education Centre, 1993, pp. 146–7.

Joe Hurst: [Michael]’d come up to Dangar Island [on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney] and he’d talk about, he’d be working on some thing. He’d say, ‘Oh, I’m working on this thing’, you know. ‘What is it?’ ‘I can’t tell you’, which means he doesn’t know yet. Anyhow, he came up and he goes, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve written it, I’ve got this thing’. I said, ‘Show me the script’. ‘Oh, it’s not written’. ‘What is it?’ ‘Oh, it’s this thing. Just come, turn up, Joe’. I had to design this thing for him and it was Poison.

I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Just paint me some pictures … So I just painted some pictures … Me and Michael, we’d fire off each other … We’d go to rehearsals with the actors and he’d just choose, I don’t know, people who had … worked with him. ‘Why’d you choose these people for?’ He goes, ‘Oh’. He had this thing about choosing friends to act for him. Like I suppose like there’s iconic photographs and a lot of iconic faces in his movies. I went, ‘Oh, look, I can’t work with them people’ …

He expected everybody to do their job without him telling them. He thought it was intuitive but they wanted a director to direct them. So they had to figure out that he was a non-directing director. He thought that he was an intuitive director. But he’s like Elvis, a real faker, you know, and he was faking it.

Yes, so he could be intuitive with them. He’d talk to them and then go, ‘What do you think the character is from the script?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, this is what I think it is’ and he’d go, ‘Oh, right’. Even though he couldn’t say, ‘Tone it down, become this person’. He’d say to the actor, ‘What do you think the character should be and should do?’ ‘Oh, she should have a really nice dress and my hair should be beautiful and have big red lips and go “That’s life”’. Because it was easier for him to say yes than to say no …

Alternatives, he never had an alternative because he didn’t direct people. He directed the image as a photographer. Then he said to me one day, ‘Oh, I wish I could direct people’. I go, ‘Look, these photographs, why don’t you make moving pictures?’ ‘Oh, yeah, all right’ … His had a story directly related to the heroin and the drug abuse of Sydney Aboriginal people … His was a direct relationship to people he knew and a situation that was happening about heroin abuse in Sydney at the time … I don’t know if he’s seen what happened years later as the heroin got really bad and a lot of people died. I don’t know if he could see it but he sensed it, he sensed that he had to make a film about heroin abuse right there and then …

I moved back to Sydney and he turns up and he turns up with 50 lines of words on a page and 50 numbers on it, 52 numbers or 55 numbers, and he goes, ‘Here, Joe, here’s the script. I want you to draw this and this’ll be a storyboard to my new film’. I went, ‘Alright’ … Anyhow, one day he turns up for one of my salads with this 50, 52 line, 52 numbers with words saying ‘mountain’, ‘fish’, ‘dead cat’ or something. He said, ‘This is my script to my new film Empire’. I went, ‘Oh, yeah, all right’. He didn’t even have a name, he sort of went something like Empire or Britannia or something. So I had this really nice Stonehenge paper, so I drew up these things I call flashcards. Once I painted them all … I really love it because what you can do is you can shuffle up like a deck of tarot cards and you can make different movies because of the different order you watch them in.

So a year or two went by and he rings me up and he says, ‘Look, you’ve got to come to the Dendy Theatre, my film’s on tonight at the Festival of the Dreaming’, the film festival back then. I went, ‘Alright’. So we turn up and there’s all this film mob there and we sort of avoid the ones we want to avoid, which Michael’s good at too, he’s good at avoiding people, which I like because if he was avoiding them then I’m avoiding them too, you know. So we go and we sit down and we sit next to each other and we’re sitting in the middle of the theatre, in the middle, in the middle of the picture theatre by ourselves and all these other people all around. This movie comes on and I just go, ‘Oh’. He goes, ‘What do you reckon?’ It was fantastic on two points. It was fantastic as a film, it’s fantastic that he didn’t direct any people, it was iconic images, but I really like the DAP [Director of Art photography] and Michael. Some of my flashcards were identical to the shots in the film. So if I did 52 drawings, there could’ve been 12, 15, 18 shots in the film that were driven from my drawings, which I love. So I went, ‘Great’. So he’d actually taken notice of my pictures. That’s what I like about him. But I like it because it brought in everything … not what he talked about. He didn’t talk about art, he talked about people, about what they did. So all the exhibitions that I never went to or have seen is what Empire was. Then from the still photos that he took on location, then that became the next exhibition … flyblown. So flyblown grew out of Empire. So that’s Michael with his 120 Bronica on set. So when the DAP sets up a shot with the 16-millimetre camera, Michael’s there with his Bronica taking the shot. So Empire comes out and flyblown comes out. It’s the same thing. Well, to me it’s the same thing because they come out in 1997–98.

'Quest for country' 1993
Quest for country, written and directed by Riley, was produced under the international Indigenous Spirit to spirit co-production for SBS Television, and was the filmic bridge between A common place: portraits of Moree Murries and Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve (1999), a photographic series of the Dubbo Aboriginal community.

Quest for country was the most autobiographical of all Riley’s work, and his quiet determination is evident as he is filmed driving through the countryside of New South Wales, travelling home from Sydney to Dubbo, through a desecrated landscape – power stations ominously spewing water vapour, clouds roiling in fast time-exposure, casting shadows over the land. The technical aspects of the film evoke US director Godfrey Reggio’s QATSI trilogy (1975–82) – particularly the first film, Koyannisqatsi (a Hopi term meaning ‘life out of balance’) – and Francis Ford Coppola’s urban dreamscape/nightmare, Rumble fish (1983).

In 1993 Riley and Rachel Perkins established an independent production company called Blackfella Films. Their first production through Blackfella Films was an international co-production by Indigenous filmmakers from Australia as well as Maori, Sami and Native Canadians. Riley’s film was called Quest for country.

'Eora' 1995
The 1990s were an incredibly productive period in both still and moving imagery for Riley. In 1995 the Museum of Sydney commissioned the film Eora, which proved to be a love letter to and eulogy for the original custodians of the Sydney region. Shot in and around the harbour setting of the country’s largest city, the metropolis is barely apparent. Riley makes vivid use of the natural beauty of the bush and water, paying homage to the reminders of the Eora/Yura clans, in the form of the prolific but mostly unknown rock engravings in the region. Riley co-opted family, friends and colleagues from the AIDT as participants, and a poignant footnote is that one of the young dancers, Keith Connors, died in a tragic accident overseas prior to the launch of the film.

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