Home » News » Interview: Uncle Badger Bates – Barka: The Forgotten River exhibition.

Interview: Uncle Badger Bates – Barka: The Forgotten River exhibition.

16 March 2023

Lola Forester spoke with Barkandji Elder Uncle Badger Bates about his new exhibition Barka: The Forgotten River that opened at the Australian Museum recently.  Barka: The Forgotten River, brings together works by artist and Barkandji Elder, Uncle Badger Bates and artist Justine Muller.

The longest river in Australia at 1,472km, the Barka is under threat and the curators say they want us to understand the need to repair the relationship with the river and its valuable resources.

Uncle Badger Bates is interviewed on the shore of Emu Lake among Red Gums, a part of the Menindee Lake system. The interviews form part of the exhibition materials for the Barka exhibition in March 2023.

The exhibition features objects from the AM’s First Nations collection, which along with Bates’ and Muller’s artworks combine carvings, sculptures and audio-visual production to convey the importance of this extraordinary NSW river system and bring into sharp focus the environmental impacts it is facing. This free exhibition, supported by The Balnaves Foundation, will be open to the public in Hintze Hall from Thursday 16 March through to Sunday 23 July 2023.

Focussing on the stories, culture, and people who depend on Barka as a life source, the exhibition has been a 20-year project for Uncle Badger. Born and raised on the river in Wilcannia, his grandmother Granny Moysey, showed Uncle Badger how to carve and taught him about his Barkandji Culture while travelling along the river.

Uncle Badger uses sculptures, leadlight, lino print, wood, and steel to bring our attention to the predicament the Barka and its communities face. Muller tells these stories using photography, video, sound recordings, ceramics and paintings she made on site in Wilcannia with Community participation. The collaboration between the two artists and their mixed media along with cultural objects from the AM’s renowned collection take the visitor on an unforgettable journey.

Uncle Badger says that rivers give so much more than water – they provide strength and vitality to all who use them.

“Where rivers wander, life can flourish. Rivers and surrounding areas are home to different plants and species such as fish, yabbies, mussels, turtles, birds, and Red River Gums. These animals and plants have been an important cultural and food source for the Barkandji people who have relied on the Barka’s interconnected ecosystems for thousands of years,” Uncle Badger said.

The Barka’s headwaters form in Northern NSW and it joins the mighty Murray River at Wentworth in western NSW, creating the lifeblood and economic resource of communities and towns across four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Its basin covers over one million square kilometres, and more than three million people depend upon its flowing water for sustenance and irrigation.  For Barkandji people it is the source of everything, it is the giver of life and it is central to their Culture.                                                                                                                      

“Rivers have shaped us as a species, long before we have shaped them. The modern world has attempted to change, divert, straighten and drain them. We must now restore our ‘Barka’ so she may help restore us,” Uncle Badger added.          

Justine Muller, who sought a blessing from an Elder before traveling out onto Country, said that not only was it a great privilege to be welcomed into the community, but their generosity and teachings enabled her to translate shared knowledge into a visual lens of her own. From a Western prism, it is the hope that others similar to herself will have the ability to see the importance and beauty of this culture and its wisdom.

“It was through their welcome and their care that I was able to learn and contribute in my own way to the
wellbeing of the Barka. Their deep spiritual connection to Country and all its surrounding elements will not only transcend time but will be essential to its survival. Through observation, reciprocity, and practice they have learnt to live with the land, whereas we live off it,” Muller said.

“I hope that through this exhibition we can help bridge the cultural gaps and remind visitors of ancient truths which are now more relevant than ever,” Muller added. 

Laura McBride, who is the Director of First Nations at the Australian Museum said, “Rivers are not merely resources to be used, they should be recognised as living entities with whom we are in a lasting reciprocal relationship. In Barka: The Forgotten River, the use of multiple cultural objects from sculpture, paintings, tools and carved objects illustrates the great cultural and environmental understanding that Barkandji people have regarding the Barka and surrounding landscape.”

“Through consultation and collaboration with an Elder on Country, AM curator, Courtney Marsh, a Minjungbal-Yugambeh, Ni-Vanuatu woman, has been dedicated to showcasing how we all need to repair and improve our relationships to the Barka. Using historical items from the AM collection and contemporary art works, Marsh reveals how we must understand our river in a more holistic manner,” McBride added.

CEO of The Balnaves Foundation, Hamish Balnaves, said that the spiritual, cultural and ecological philosophy of First Nations peoples means our land and resources were kept in pristine condition for thousands of years.

“The Darling River is under threat, and as a vital resource for the region and the community, the Foundation is proud to partner with the Australian Museum to highlight the plight of the Barka. We support the traditional custodians and seek to communicate the ecological and cultural values to a broader audience through this exhibition,” Mr Balnaves said. 

Barka is presented in four sections with visitors following two different paths – one to a healthy and thriving ecosystem and one towards devastating environmental and social impacts that will be felt far beyond its dry banks.  The four sections are:

  • In Our Veins  The Barka is the lifeblood of not only Barkandji People and Country but of wider NSW. Caring for the river is central to Barkandji Culture, but we can all participate in caring for Country.
  • Lore Keepers – When we respect and look after Country, we are practicing good Culture or Lore. When Lore is kept, the Barka is healthy, and everything along the river can thrive: the people, plants, and animals.
  • Agriculture– Barkandji people have lived and thrived along the river for thousands of years using sustainable land management practices guided by Culture. Climate change, and land and water mismanagement has meant that everyone along the river is suffering. This is the result of acting without Culture, but there is always time to help Country.
  •  Kulpa-Kulpa – Listen to the people who have loved Barka for generations, their joyful memories of a healthy clean river, their sorrow at its current state, and be spurred to action by their ongoing fight for Barka.                                                                                                                                                    

Dates: 16 March – 23 July 2023

Where: Hintze Hall, Ground level, Australian Museum

Cost: Entry is free due to the generous support from The Balnaves Foundation.

About The Balnaves Foundation:

The Balnaves Foundation is a private philanthropic organisation established in 2006 by Neil Balnaves AO. Dispersing over $3 million annually to eligible organisations that aim to create a better Australia through education, medicine and the arts with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous Australia.

About Uncle Badger Bates

Uncle Badger is a Lore Keeper, an activist and artist, his knowledge of the Barka has been used to promote better management of the river system. His artistic talents have been recognised throughout the world and his work presented in leading galleries and museums.

About Justine Muller

Justine Muller is a visual artist who works across the mediums of painting, drawing, sculpture and photography to bring awareness to social issues, particularly those of First Nations. In 2015, Muller self-funded a residency in the Wilcannia community to work under the guidance of Uncle Badger Bates.

More Like This

ChillCheney’s ‘Victor’ Tour: Tickets on Sale!

Indigenous Hip Hop Sensation ChillCheney Unveils Plans for Electrifying Australian Tour                                  ...
8 May 2024

Empowering Diversity: Stories of Strength from the Speak My Language (Disability) Program

It’s been said that the stories we tell shape the world we live in. The Speak My Language (Disability) Program harnesses the power of storytelling to share what it means to live well with a disability. Funded by Commonwealth Department of...
12 April 2024

Exploring the Journey: Lola Forester Interviews Richard Frankland on BlackChat

The Voice to Parliament: Where to from here and what is our collective...
13 February 2024