Michael Riley

By the time of his death in 2004, at the age of forty-four, Michael Riley was one of the leading proponents of identity politics in Australian art. A documentary photographer and filmmaker who saw himself as Aboriginal first and as an artist second, Riley aimed to create images that would counter media stereotypes of indigenous Australia. In the past—and, scarily enough, often today—these stereo- types tended to present indigenous people as anonymous figures somehow surviving in flyblown dust bowls. Riley, by contrast, made portraits and lush landscape imagery that celebrated everyday life in Aboriginal communities, in the bush, and in the city. His subjects were diverse but always identified by name and context, whether they were members of Riley’s own family sitting in conversation in rural New South Wales, fellow artists on the cusp of international success (such as Tracey Moffatt, with whom Riley exhibited in the mid-’80s), or Aboriginal protesters filling the streets of downtown Sydney, whose social activism found its cultural counterpart in Riley’s documentary gaze.

That parallel activism is just one of the narratives foregrounded in “Michael Riley: Sights Unseen,” a retrospective curated by Brenda L. Croft that concluded a two-year tour through six Australian venues at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibition’s subtitle is accurate: Not only were Riley’s subjects (such as the indigenous sports players in Guwanyl: Stories of the Redfern Aboriginal Community, ca. 1975–83) largely ignored in the Australian news media of the time, but many of the photographs and videos in the retrospective, especially those made before 1992, have rarely been shown in recent years. In past shows, documentary series such as “A Common Place: Portraits of the Moree Murries,” 1991, for which Riley photographed residents from the community of Moree against neutral cloth backdrops, or his short film Poison, 1991, about heroin overdoses in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern, were invariably sidelined in favor of Riley’s more conceptual practice of the mid-’90s onward. Here, however, half the gallery was devoted to the earlier, and starkly affective, works, revealing the forgotten breadth of Riley’s practice and providing the exhibition with its highlights.

The presence of these photographs and videos also exposed the shortcomings of the exhibition’s second half, devoted to works from Riley’s later conceptual turn, on which his reputation developed. In lieu of the earnest—although perhaps too earnest—simplicity of the documentaries, series such as “Flyblown,” 1998, and “Cloud,” 2000, hinge on overly simplistic symbolism. Riley condenses the complex histories of Aboriginal peoples and European—especially Christian—colonizers into rather facile images of towering crucifixes; photographs of dead fauna lying against drought-cracked soil, or of cattle superimposed on an open sky, can only hint at the zealous suffocation of the land in the interests of European settlement. Some of these images have become iconic in contemporary Australian photography, and works from the “Cloud” series now hang permanently at the rear entrance to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. However, the reductive treatment of historical and contemporary conflicts in Riley’s later works now seems to echo the very reductivism that he fought hard against—and to a large extent successfully—with his earlier activist practice.

Anthony Gardner