Australia 1960 – 2004
Untitled, from the series cloud [angel back, full wings]
2000, printed 2005 Description: Angel back, full wings
Collection Title: Cloud series
Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: photographs, chromogenic pigment print Printed on Epson Stylus Pro 9600, by Sandy Barnard
Michael Riley’s career as a photomedia artist and filmmaker began in Sydney in the early 1980s with elegant black and white portraits. In the early 1990s his films and still photographs were conceptual and poetic rather than documentary works. They drew on aspects of his personal history, particularly the Christian teachings he encountered in early childhood on the Tralbalgar Aboriginal Reserve in Dubbo. In these later projects Riley used digital montage to conjoin Aboriginal and European symbols.
The series cloud speaks to the history of Aboriginal and European Australia. The title conveys associations of physical and spiritual lightness, but also of the shadow Europeans shed over Aboriginal lives. The sequence begins with a cemetery angel, eyes seemingly averted from the mass deaths of Aboriginal people. This is followed by images of the wings of a native crow; a single feather, with associations of Egyptian myth in which one’s soul is weighed against a feather; the black covers of an open Bible being tossed away or landing like an alien; a native locust in crucifix formation and recalling the biblical plagues; a solid black cow standing for the displacement of Aboriginal lands by pastoralists; and a boomerang, symbol both of flight and return/resurrection.
Angry protest was not Riley’s style; the final montage of the angel’s wing sinking into the bottom left corner of the print presents a suspended image of hope or despair, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014