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Essay: Djon Mundine on Michael Riley's flyblown

Djon Mundine

… When you’re driving out west you think about all these things,
all the massacres that happened, how Aboriginal people
survived, how lands have been cleared. I was also trying to get
back, retracing family roots for people, looking for people,
looking for relatives, lost relatives, or trying to find out more
from these relatives …
— Michael Riley, 1993

Michael Riley’s photographic series Flyblown follows on from the poetic,
evocative moving image stories of Quest for Country (1993), the photographic
portraits of family listings A common place: Portraits of Moree Murries (1990),
and Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve (1998), the reflective, casual, almost
slow-motion and dream-like slide of an empire in decline in Empire (1997), and
exists as precursor to his final work Cloud (2000). All talked of a slow, almost
imperceptible decline of empire.

Michael Riley was born on the Talbragar mission but lived in Dubbo, until
he finished school. The Trabalgar mission was run by the Aboriginal Inland
Mission connected to the Anglican Church. By his mid-teens, he was already
making and printing black and white photos using a developing kit from the
local chemist.

I was interested in the process—I was inquisitive. I just knew
there were images I wanted to do.
-Michael Riley, 2000

I have written previously of the line of sophisticated Aboriginal people to come
from the Dubbo and Talbragar ‘mission’ area on the junction of the Talbragar
and Macquarie Rivers. People who existed in the space between what
Michael described as the ‘Rad Ab’ – the politically active marchers of the
streets, and the ‘Trad Ab’ – the spiritual people sought out by new-agers
and visiting backpackers. Michael strove to highlight these people. He would
count himself among them. This was a worldly art practitioner and person.
His quiet, seemingly aloof manner, belied a deep-thinking person of extreme
warmth, humour and generosity. There were times when Michael would be
present physically but silent, his presence stated by a strong and positive
spirit—a very masculine thing.

In the year of Michael’s birth, 1960, the Brazilian film Black Orpheus was
released. For one of the first times a feature film presented a story of exotic,
amazingly beautiful black people, their dreams to express themselves, and
the liveliness and beauty of that expression. From Dubbo, Michael became
a carpenter’s apprentice in outer Sydney and went on to a photography
course run by Bruce Hart at the Tin Sheds at Sydney University in the early
1980s. He followed Hart to be his technical assistant at Sydney College of the
Arts. He appeared in the ground-breaking Koori 84 exhibition that brought
‘urban Aboriginal art’ (post-colonial) into the contemporary art conversation.
Spending the next few years at Rapport Agency in Sydney, he produced the
Portraits by a Window series of his friends who were part of the amazingly
creative, beautiful black Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists’ scene
he moved in.

His work was first really exhibited in the Aboriginal and Islander
Photographers Exhibition at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney in 1986.
These ‘urban’ Aboriginal artists who came to socialise and work together
would go on to form the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Ko-operative, dispelling
stereotypes of Aboriginal art as being only apolitical, spiritual narratives by
old men living in the centre and north of Australia. All would go on to lead
remarkable careers in the visual arts. His first film, Boomalli: Five Koori
in part documented this movement.

Though seemingly successful as an artist - critically and somewhat
financially - he lived a couch surfing existence between, most probably, three
friend’s houses - his cousin Polly, one other, and his friend and supporter,
fellow Wiradjuri activist and now member for parliament Linda Burney.

The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched
only by its hostility… I admire its purity. A survivor...
unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
- Alien (1979)

A flyblown being is one in serious, possibly fatal, infected decay. Infected - impregnated with a parasite, an unthinking insect, that lives-off its host, eventually killing it at birth. Just after Michael moved to Sydney to begin an apprenticeship as a carpenter, the film Alien (1979) was released. A sci-fi film telling of a rapacious, seemingly indestructible, alien life form that impregnates its human victims with offspring that then kill its host in its birth.

Michael has used the idea of flyblown - decay, rotting, death - to depict the colonisation process of Aboriginal peoples in the most brutal, ugliest terms. This process is an inhuman relentlessness, an uncaring action; a morally and socially bereft action that kills its host society and environment in growing to birth.

The first decade of my life was spent as a noncitizen. I was raised by two very brave people who no doubt were made to pay for the bravery and generosity they displayed—my great aunt Letitia Laing, Nina, and her brother Billy. They were of Scottish heritage and in the latter part of their life. I have wondered often had they not stepped up to raise me where my life would be now. [4]
— Hon. Linda Burney MP, Wiradjuri Nation

About the time of the British coming to Australia, a forerunner of the colonisation of our lands was being played out in Scotland. What came to be called the ‘Scottish Highland Clearances’ was well underway in 1770. Although in train before, after the Scottish defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746 the English forces, aided by the assistance of opportunistic Scottish clan leaders, forcibly removed huge sections of the population off the land so they could run sheep, a far more profitable enterprise. By some estimates, nearly half a million people died of starvation or from the elements as a result. A similar number migrated as indentured labour to Canada, America, and Australia. Some in fact then enacted the very colonial crimes perpetrated on them by the English, onto the native populations they encountered. Most, engaged in lowly occupations, attempted to retain a consciousness of their traditional language, customs and society and as in Linda Burney’s experience, contributed positively to the society they’d been forced into.

... Systematically and with due Parliamentary legislation they proceeded to eliminate all the things that made this man unique and gave him the strength they so feared, they penalized the wearing of his highland dress, penalized the weaving of his highland tartan, penalized the worshipping at his church, penalized the carrying of his weapons, penalized the playing of his music, ... [5]
— John Prebble, historian on the Scottish Highland Clearances

The Western Australian Department of Native Affairs only ceased forcefully taking Aboriginal children from their parents and sending them to missions in 1960. Other states were similarly tardy in this regard.

As had occurred in Scotland, following attempts to annihilate the Aboriginal populations the land was ‘cleared’ through either ‘dispersing’ the survivors or moving them onto reserves or Christian missions to be mentally and spiritually ‘cleansed and civilised’. Many thousands of Aboriginal children were taken away from their family, culture and country. One of Michael’s uncles was taken away from his parents because he spoke his language, I was told.

In Australia, ‘Flyblown’ is a term normally associated with sheep though other creatures can be similarly infected. For Aboriginal people, the arrival of the British and the colonisation of the continent could be seen, as a form of ‘Flyblown’ infestation. Australia was said to live ‘off the sheep’s back’ in consideration of the sheer number of the animals and their value to the economy, up until very recent times. It’s been suggested by some researchers that populations of flies increased wildly through the introduction of sheep and cattle to this environment that was totally unprepared for these creatures.

The dead by the road, or on it, testify to the presence of man. Their little gestures of pain—paws, wings and tails—are the saddest, the loneliest, most forlorn postures of the dead I can imagine. When we have stopped killing animals as though they were so much refuse, we will stop killing one another. But the highways show our indifference to death, so long as it is someone else’s. It is an attitude of the human mind I do not grasp. [6]
— Timothy Findley, 1965

Dusk and dawn are times of highest collision risk.

People caught and killed in the path of battles, wars, and rapacious colonisation, are bureaucratically called ‘collateral damage’ - weasel words to absolve the killers. People seemingly killed by tragic accident, killed by no-one. Technology could be seen to be at war with nature and many beings, animal species or human are killed daily by this apparently blameless, blind homage to our love affair with new technology.

This cloak tells my story. It charts my life. On it is my clan totem, the goanna, and my personal totem, the white cockatoo—a messenger bird and very noisy. [7]
— Hon. Linda Burney MP, Wiradjuri Nation

A smashed splayed dead pink crested galah on cracked brown earth.
Birds are messengers across the spiritual divide. They see spirit beings; the dead, wandering the earth seeking release from the trauma of their passing. Galahs, cockatoos of different, different, colours, live in great social, noisy flocks and are seen in Wiradjuri terms as spiritual messengers. A dead galah that would appear to be the victim of ‘roadkill’ lays splayed on the cracked mud of a dry creek bed in the Flyblown series.

Traditional Aboriginal life existed in a dichotomy, a binary similar but different, to yin and yang, male and female, fire and floods, or positive and negative. It embodied the idea of the division and unity of the universe. One cannot exist without the other and it’s the interaction of the two that creates life. Anthropologists called this a moiety system – that of two halves, after the French word for half. People married across this division. Michael’s father, Allen Riley was a Wiradjuri man from Dubbo. His mother, Dorothy, née Wright, was a Kamilaroi woman from Moree. They were both church attending people. And following colonisation Aboriginal people would encounter another binary - Catholicism and Protestantism, or Catholicism and Anglicanism in Michael’s case. Some of the Riley family were Catholics and others Anglican. In my own family, Catholic and Pentecostal.

Most Aboriginal people now would say they are Christian though the form of that belief isn’t your standard one. A form of universal spirituality remained part of our lives in this conversion, and it’s no accident Christian imagery runs through Michael’s images – as in four of the nine images in Flyblown. Three large Christian crosses, red, gold, and blue, all with polished faces reflecting the cloud-filled skies - the spirit of the land, and as Christ and the two thieves on the hill of Calvary. Red for the blood of Christ but also, possibly referring to the meaning of the word Dubbo - red ochre used in the traditional clay widow’s cap. Gold is for repenting. Of the two thieves one repented for his crimes - one repentant, the other unrepentant, blaspheming Christ. Blue represents a cleansing - baptism by water; possibly referring to the traditional philosophy of the land being cleansed and regenerated through fire and water (flooding).
Aboriginal concept of time is cyclical not linear. And following this one could see Michael’s images as a progressive statement of this sojourn. ‘Still life’ was a widespread form of painting in Europe when the English came to colonise Australia. It remains a popular practice today. Vanitas is a term aligned with this, pointing to the consciousness of the transient reality of the world; of wealth and possessions, and how all things of beauty must die and decay. Images in this genre may be commonplace - food, animals, fish and plants, flowers, and in such renderings in an Aboriginal sense, to be seen as ‘totemic’? Possibly!

In the 1980s when I worked as an Art Advisor at Ramingining in Arnhem land I suggested to several artists that they paint single song subject images from the Morning Star song-cycle. Two painters, who Michael would film in 1988 as part of his Dreamings documentary, Johnny Bulun Bulun (1946-2010) and his brother-in-law Jack Wununwun (1930-1991), each created a set of elegant images that would eventually appear in the ground-breaking Magicians of the Earth exhibition in Paris in 1989, one of the most important exhibitions of the twentieth century. Michael’s images - birds, grasses, clouds, water, cracked earth - reflect fragility of life following in the western tradition of Vanitas, but more importantly, the images serve as listing a song cycle of a ‘dreaming’ song line while recording the death of the land and its people due to colonisation.
All Michael’s works deal with the broad but brutal issues of ‘black armband’ – white blindfold, true facts of Australian colonial – history. A colonialism beginning with cursory sightings, then violent exchanges, wars and massacres, followed by the saving and assimilation of the survivors by Christian missionaries.

It is a history of ‘clearing the land’, of wiping clean and re-writing, of Aboriginal people being murdered or forced from the land and on to missions and reserves. The gun or the crucifix. Crosses, prayers, stigmata, dark fish, Bibles, water, cracked earth. The death of the environment with Christian overtones. Biblical plagues—droughts, a poisoning of the water. As rural industry physically takes the land, Christian zeal takes the soul.

An image of a discarded bible in a muddy puddle signals a cynical rejection of organised Christianity and its promise. It is still a fact in some Aboriginal communities that by the time the generations of sons have reached 30 they have no male role models to guide them, owing to their fathers’ dying. To lose someone so gifted is a loss for all of us who knew him, and a loss to all who appreciate art. Michael made the following comment to an image from his final work Cloud. Here the feather, stripped of or fallen from the Galah, is emblematic of the whole. It bears repeating.

"...The feather, almost suspended in the sky, could also be quite a heavy thing. I see the feather, myself, as sort of a messenger, sending messages onto people and community and places..." [8]
- Michael Riley, 2000

[1] Artist’s statement on the work, Quest for Country, 1993

[2] Michael Riley, in conversation with the author, Glebe, New South Wales, 2000

[3] Quoted from the film Alien, 1979, directed by Ridley Scott. Spoken by the character, Ash, a cyborg lifeform aboard the vessel Nostromo

[4] The Hon. Linda Burney MP, First speech to Australian parliament, 31 August 2016

[5] John Prebble, Culloden, 1961

[6] Timothy Findley, from 1965 journal, in Journeyman: Travels of a Writer (2003, Pebble Publications), ISBN 0-00-200673-1, p. 16

[7] The Hon. Linda Burney MP, First speech to Australian parliament, 31 August 2016

[8] Artist’s statement on the work, Cloud, 2000