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.