Badger Bates and Sarah Martin

Badger Bates was born on the Baaka (Darling River) at Wilcannia in 1947. He was brought up by his extended family and his grandmother Granny Moysey, learning from them the language, history and culture of the Barkandji people. He continues travelling the country looking after important places and teaching young people about their culture and their country. Badger is an artist, cultural heritage consultant and environmental activist. His art shows his connection to Country and the complex relationships between people, country and water. Recent exhibitions include Art Gallery of South Australia’s Tarnanthi festival 2019, the Biennale of Sydney Rivus 2022, and The Australian Museum Barka the Forgotten River’2023.

Sarah Martin is a heritage professional and archaeologist working with communities to create multi-layered histories of the semi-arid regions of New South Wales by combining archaeology, archival records and oral history. Research interests include black earth mounds on the Murrumbidgee riverine plain, as indicators of a mid to late Holocene focus on managed, dense, predictable, carbohydrate-rich plant crops and their prolonged cooking in heat retainer ovens to maximise carbohydrate returns. She is currently working with Indigenous community members researching relationships with country and waters through traditional use of fish traps and fish weirs on the Baaka, as a response to the degradation of the river systems.

The Barkandji word ngaratya, meaning ‘together’, ‘us group’, ‘all in it together’, is fundamental to this exhibition. It is also fundamental to Barkandji ways of doing and being. While the outside world tries to divide us and our country and waters into ever smaller and more meaningless divisions, we must strive to strengthen our togetherness. Our power to maintain our culture and environment depends on our ngaratya.  

Baaka is our ngamaka, our mother, and she is under threat from the over extraction of water from irrigation. The government have divided her into Lower Darling and Upper Darling for water management, engagement with stakeholders, funding, fish recovery, everything. The division occurs at a massive weir across the river upstream from Menindee. It has no fish way and prevents our fish from migrating upstream to breed as they have done for tens of thousands of years. This weir is like a Berlin Wall – artificial, aggressive, destructive, and begging to be pulled down. It divides Barkandji people, country, and water, in a new way that steals our very right to exist as a people. They have also divided the Murray Darling Basin into the Northern Basin, and the Southern Basin, even though they are linked by the Baaka and are mutually dependant on each other. A perfect illustration of this dependence was demonstrated earlier this year at Wentworth, where the Baaka joins the Murray. A massive blackwater event (water that is black in colour has very little oxygen in it, so the fish and other aquatic animals suffocate) was coming down the Murray, but at Wentworth you could see the pale milk coffee coloured Baaka water flowing into the Murray water. The healthy Baaka water was flowing into the bad Murray water to form a mix that the fish and everything could survive in.  This ‘gift of life’ from the Baaka travelled downstream into other people’s country and down to the mouth of the Murray. In the same way as they have divided our waters, the government divides our communities through native title processes, land councils, Murray Darling Basin Commission regions and funding bodies, town communities, state borders, joint management of National Parks, and regional assemblies – the list is endless. 

The way the group of Barkandji artists in this exhibition are linked together cuts across the grain of these false divisions. Just like our old people, they have connected through different ways and levels. Through family connections (either biological or kinship), through connections to Barkandji country and the Baaka, through Barkandji language, through plants and animals that feed us and keep us healthy, through intellectual connections, through creative processes. This is how our old people worked together to protect and nourish our country – layers of many different kinds of connections. Our old people were inclusive, not exclusive, they brought everyone into the fold and consulted with everyone. When they spoke, they each spoke their own Barkandji dialect, and other Barkandji would understand them. They often knew many languages so that they could talk with all of their neighbours about important things.  

So how did such a group of artists, with very different life histories and connections, living in three states, ngaratya? They came together in different ways. Visiting each other, going to the bush and the Baaka together, as well as looking at historical and scientific records about plants and animals. Talking to family. Talking to elders. Thinking together. Eating together. Doing art together. Remembering old people. Touching the country, dipping into the water, breathing in the air. Feeling at home. Ngaratya. A lot of communication and organisation was done by text, email, social media, but that is modern Barkandji life. We just use these as tools, like message sticks of the modern age. You might ask why Facebook is so popular with First Nations people. It’s because when used respectfully it is just like the old ways, keeping up connections with family and kin, as well as between like-minded people who are friends. Remember kinship is convoluted and complicated, the connection can be as vague as you like, but it is still a connection. 

Looking at the artworks in this exhibition, Ngaratya, we see this circular and interlinked way of thinking again. Barkandji art is always ‘round’, ‘circular’, or ‘wavy’. No straight lines, no sharp corners, no end, no finality. Everything is interconnected, the past and the present and the future, it’s all ngaratya. The art created by the exhibition’s artists is ngaratya, it shows togetherness and interconnectedness. Whether it’s a traditional wood carving, or caste metal, a linocut print, or moulded glass, the transitions are seamless. Whether it’s a hand-coloured vision of country or a bark canoe, it’s all the same story, just using different mediums and translations. All telling that story of country, and connection to country, and connection to each other. Stories about history, and about those things that are old and young at the same time. 

This exhibition will encourage visitors to take part in their own journey of ngaratya, togetherness. It showcases the beauty and complexity of our Barkandji country and culture, for everyone to enjoy and learn about. It asks you to come in and join the circle, whether you are relations, kin, Barkandji, other First Nations groups who may be neighbours or have similar issues and aspirations, or those who are not related or connected but would like to experience the artist’s connection to country and culture, anyone who wants to be friends or colleagues and learn about Barkandji art and ways of doing and being. 

We must educate people to remember the old ways. Divisions diminish our ability to think and they diminish our power to have a say and make a difference. Divisions are a trap made by government to weaken us. The old saying conquer and divide, or more properly conquer by dividing, is the trick played on colonised people all the time. We have to keep our heads above this and practice ngaratya. Ngayi, kirra kirr-inana – welcome to our country!

Originally commissioned for ngaratya (together, us group, all in it together). 
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