Ginger Riley Munduwalawala (c.1936- 2002)
The late Ginger Riley Munduwalawala (c.1936 – 2002) is recognised as one of Australia’s most important contemporary artists. Over the course of his celebrated career, Riley developed and pushed his skill and interpretations in paint in new directions creating a unique style that marked him as one of the country’s great artists. He worked on a heroic scale in concept painting on large canvases, mastered his mind’s eye of Country on small archival papers and found board. Riley’s practice challenged the Australian art landscape, recontextualising contemporary Australian Aboriginal art for national and international audiences. Described as ‘the boss of colour’ Riley was known for depicting country in dazzling brilliant hues, relishing in the exaltation of painting big stories.
Born around 1936 in South-East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Riley was a saltwater man of the Marra people, from the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. As a young man, while working as a stockman across the Northern Territory, Riley encountered watercolourist Albert Namatjira in Aranda country, Hermannsburg. Observing Namatjira’s painting and seeing Country painted in colour left a profound impression on Riley and he noted Namatjira’s fame and financial independence to live and travel. This chance meeting later inspired him to begin painting after returning to Ngukurr in the mid-1980s.
Riley’s work generally interprets a sequence of events focused on his mother’s country. This country includes the Limmen Bright River, Maria and Beatrice Islands at the mouth of the river, and the area around the Four Archers, a geographical formation about 45km inland on the Limmen Bight River. Riley’s paintings are represented from above, reflecting the perspective of his ancestors, as Riley described, who descended from the sky to the sea. Riley’s innate sense of place enabled this aerial perspective, and he described this vantage point as if he was, ‘ … on a cloud, on top of the world, looking down … From the top I can see right down to where I come from.’.
The most distinctive image in Riley’s work is the totemic white-breasted sea eagle, Ngak Ngak, often shown singularly or as a repeated image. Ngak Ngak fulfils the role of a guardian - looking after the Country.
Riley was not a prolific artist and each painting was carefully thought out - the images seen in his mind and often inspired by the changing seasons. From a burst of creative energy, a group of new paintings would appear – like the Marra ceremonial song cycles Gudjiga, always going forward, the same but different.
In 1997, Riley was the first living Australian Aboriginal artist to be honoured with a retrospective exhibition and publication at the National Gallery of Victoria entitled Mother Country in Mind: The Art of Ginger Riley Mundawalawala. This important exhibition was monumental and considered one of the most important exhibitions of an Australian artist’s career at that time.
Beverly and Anthony Knight and Alcaston Gallery were deeply saddened by the artist's passing in 2002. Riley was represented by Alcaston Gallery his entire career and was a long-standing friend of Anthony Knight and Beverly Knight, Alcaston Gallery Director and Executive of Riley’s Estate.
Ginger Riley Munduwalawala (c.1936 – 2002) is represented in major public art galleries and collections in Australia, Asia, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the USA.
© The Estate of Ginger Riley and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne 2024
For an extended CV, please contact Alcaston Gallery at email@example.com