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.