Michael Riley - They call me niigarr

Exhibition: 29 August to 6 October, 2012

Michael Riley

Michael Riley’s series They call me niigarr was made in 1995. It was Riley’s last exhibition at Hogarth Galleries and was his most overtly political exhibition. His voice was always understated and he favoured the poetic as a form of expression.

It is difficult for indigenous artists to stay away from politics. Michael said about this work “This 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”.

The names which he refers to that appear across a brightly coloured red background and a figure of an indigenous man posing in a suit and bow tie yet looking at the camera in the manner of a mug shot. The names, presented in letters cut out from newsprint, are Golliwog, Dusty, Licorice, Sambo, Vegemite, Bomba and Nigarr. Then there is Marbuck which is the name of the main Aboriginal protagonist in the archetypal Australian film Jedda made in 1955, the last film made by Charles Chauvel. Aboriginal men are still sometimes named Marbuck.

Riley is probably best-known for the two series he produced after this, flyblown in 1998 and cloud in 2000. He is remembered for Sacrifice, which was made in 1992 and for his extraordinary video Empire, which was commissioned for Rhoda Robert’s 1997 Festival of the Dreaming program of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee.

It is now time to reassess Michael Riley’s enormous contribution and to revisit the lesser known series such as They call me niigarr and his beautiful portraits of his indigenous peers in the artworld (various Portraits from 1986, Portraits by a Window 1990, Portraits of Moree Murris 1991 and Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve 1998).

Michael Riley passed away in 2004 after a long illness. His work will stand as a lasting testament to indigenous stories and presence in Australia. His work is collected widely within Australia and overseas.