Ginger Riley was born c.1937 near Maria Lagoon by the Limmen Bight River in Southern Arnhem Land. A ‘salt-water’ man Riley grew up in the bush, until the death of his mother when the family moved to the Roper River Mission, where Ginger attended school. Roper River was renamed Ngukurr in 1968 when control reverted to the Aboriginal community. As a young man Riley sought adventure and independence, traveling the Northern Territory working as a stockman and laborer on Nutwood Downs Station and elsewhere. During these travels he met and watched Albert Namatjira painting his country and admired the nice paint and 'saw my colour country' (cited in Ryan 2001: 31). It was not until work became scarce in the 1970's and Riley returned to Ngukurr that he began to paint himself.
At an Adult Education Centre printmaking course that he attended in 1988, he worked alongside Djambu Barra Barra with printing inks on cotton, which they unsuccessfully tried to sell as curtain material in the council office. The following year John Nelson brought canvas and paints to Ngukurr and Riley produced his first painting, a naturalistic landscape of sea creatures and animals.
By this time he had moved to his outstation with his wife Dinah, in the country of his Mara ancestors, just eight kilometers from his birthplace, by Maria Lagoon. Riley’s paintings drew their inspiration from his mother’s country, the area surrounding four pyramidal hills, the Four Arches, some 45 kilometers inland from the Gulf of Carpentaria on the Limmen Bight River. Ginger’s iconography was informed by the sequence of events that took place there. According to legend, the Four Arches were created by a lethal taipan, the Garimala, who traveled from far away and returned to live in a waterhole he created nearby. From here he journeyed to the Limmen Bight River, turning into the Rainbow and thus it is believed he is present during the oncoming of the wet season. Apart from this central narrative, a reoccurring image in Riley’s work was the striking Ngak Ngak, a white-breasted sea eagle said to be the guardian of this country.
Though his iconography remained largely constant throughout his career, Ginger Riley tended increasingly toward panoramic landscapes that conveyed entire narratives rather than canvases depicting single elements of his stories. Early works are marked by their small-scale, with a horizon-less background on which images are silhouetted. The introduction of Arches paper in 1990 sparked Riley’s embarkment on a colourist adventure. 'I have to see it: it must be bright,' he was quoted as exclaiming (cited in Ryan 2001: 32). Around 1993 he experimented with altering perspective, composition and colour. As he matured as an artist his brushwork and the surface of his paintings were often more subdued and demonstrated a sophisticated knowledge of the properties of acrylic paint.
Ngukurr was one of the last Arnhem Land communities to develop an arts program similar to other aboriginal communities across Australia. It appeared that each new art centre that sprung up post Papunya produced work that was more radical than the last. Ginger, even more than other artists at Ngukurr, was daringly different and in an environment that associated authentic or traditional Arnhem Land art with ochre tones and sacred rarrk, his work was too confronting. However eventually the mainstream came to terms with Riley’s work and, importantly, developed a new openness to what defines Aboriginal art. This was helped enormously by Riley’s close relationship with Melbourne art dealer Beverley Knight and her Alcaston House Gallery. After organizing exhibitions with William Mora in Melbourne and the Hogarth Gallery in Sydney at the beginning of the 1990’s, Knight held solo exhibitions for the artist almost every year throughout the 1990’s and ensured that his work was well documented.
Acceptance brought Riley wide acclaim and a string of prestigious awards. In 1992 he won the Alice Prize award for a series produced for the new Australian Embassy in Beijing. The following year he won the National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Heritage Commission Art Award, along with a further string of awards and exhibitions. In 1997 Ginger became the first Indigenous artist to be given a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Ginger Riley reached unprecedented status as an artist just prior to his death in 2002, the year in which his record price was achieved at Sotheby's with the 161 x 172.5cm canvas Untitled (Limmen Bight Country) . Though he had already established himself on the market with The Four Archers and Garimala 1988 selling for $25,300 as early as 1997, this stellar sale for $100,375 set a benchmark which, despite the many quality works offered since, has not been transcended. The artist’s then second highest price of $54,550 was set for a 123 x 172 cm entitled Limmen Bight Country 1990, estimated at $35,000-45,000 in Sotheby’s July 2004 auction (Lot 149). And the following year, a major early work conveying an epic narrative, Limmen Bight Country 1989, carried a pre-sale estimate of $80,000-100,000. It was expected to exceed the record, but failed to sell.
A record price that stands so long would generally indicate its exceptional status or rareity. It could also be indicative of an artist who has fallen out of favour. Since 2007 no less than eight works have entered Ginger Riley's top ten results of which six were sold from 2009 onward. This would at first appear to be a remarkable result given the doldrums in which the market in general languished, though 78 of the total 154 offerings of his works have been made during that time.
As would be expected Riley’s large canvases fetch the highest prices, especially those of Limmen Country in which the sea eagle Ngak Ngak is present along with the Rainbow Serpent. There have been only about 20 of these large canvases that have come to auction. Smaller canvases and boards sell for $10,000-25,000. The one exception was an early career 38 x 43 cm work on plywood, exhibited in the artist’s first exhibition at William Mora Gallery, around which Ginger had screwed plastic moulding, found in the local dump, as a frame. Perhaps its quirky nature and the charm of the image ensured that this work, illustrated on the cover of the catalogue for Lawson-Menzies May 2005 auction, became his top-selling small work when sold for more than 2 1/2 times its top estimate (Lot 17).
Late in his career in 1999 Ginger Riley participated in a workshop and produced a significant body of works outside of his relationship with his agent Beverley Knight. During the well-documented workshop many images similar to those in the National Gallery of Victoria retrospective catalogue were commissioned. Only one of these works has ever been offered for sale due to an on-going dispute with the artist’s estate. Limmen Bight-River Country 1999, one of the largest of these 'unauthorised' canvases (285.5 x 197 cm) was offered at Deutscher~Menzies 2000 sale with a presale estimate of $40,000-50,000 (Lot 84). It sold for a mere $32,825 , yet this is still the artist’s 16th highest price to date. These ‘unauthorised’ works, held in several private collections nationally, may be offered for sale from time to time but they are unlikely to sell in Tier I auction houses, or for prices commensurate with those authenticated by the artist’s estate. Moreover, it is unlikely that copyright permission allowing reproduction of these images in auction catalogues will be granted by the estate.
Riley's average price during 2007 and 2008 years was a very impressive $27,393 per work against his then career average of just $18,519. His worked faired well in 2010, despite general market malaise. Two works entered his top ten sales making second and fourth place. His average price for the five works sold that year was $35,640. Since then there has been a consistent rise in interest in his work.Though far less work was on offer in 2009, two works sold above $45,000, establishing both a third and sixth record.
However Riley's clearance rates remain relatively low, hovering just below 60%, indicating the lack of interest in his early career and smaller works. During 2012, two works created in 1988 and 1994 set his 2nd highest prices at auction. Both Garimala and Bulukbun, 1988 and The Wet-My Mother's Country, 1994 sold for $96,000.It was a stellar year for the artist overall in which he was the 8th best performing artist in spite of his overall porsition as the 29th most successful of the entire movement at that time.
Ginger Riley consistently produced high quality paintings of unique character. In a career marked by occasional brilliance he created many luminous eye-catching works. It is a true mark of his artistic genius that just as during his lifetime, Ginger Riley challenged the very nature of our perception of Aboriginal art, he continues to do so long after his death. There were very few good sales during 2014--2019. However, should his results continue on the trajectory set during the previous 4 years, his overall standing in the history of the movement should eventually see him settle to a position around the 30th most successful artist of the entire movement.