• Uncle Badger Bates hopes the exhibit will prompt others to join the fight to save the Barkindji River. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
The exhibit reflects the decades-long battle of the Barkindji people to save the sacred river and is completely constructed of materials from Wilcannia.
By
Jennetta Quinn-Bates

Source:
NITV News
22 Jun 2021 - 4:12 PM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2021 - 5:28 PM

In the middle of the floor is a trail of sand.

While it's adorned with clay footprints, feathers, rocks twigs and pieces of glass - it has so much more meaning.

Uncle Badger Bates watches over it, he brought the sand here from Wilcannia. It's a confronting representation of the battle his people have fought for decades.

"We tried to make the riverbed. What you see on the floor is what you can see out there when they take water," he said.

The artwork is the centerpiece of a powerful new exhibition on display at the Maitland Art Gallery. Titled 'Barka, The Forgotten River', it tells the story of the Barkindji people's long-term, ongoing fight to protect the sacred waterway.

"I can go and row with the government anytime but if I do that, then I am just a black troublemaker ... With my artwork, I can put a point across and make it kind to everyone and let the exhibition speak for itself." 

While the river is currently flowing, the Barkindji people say it will never be the same following years of over-extraction of the water.

There are concerns for the future of all people who live along the river, and that it's only a matter of time before it dries up again.

A Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin plan in 2019 found Commonwealth officials committed unlawful actions, negligence and gross maladministration with multibillion-dollar deals they made to “recover” water for the river.

Uncle Badger has been on the frontlines fighting to protect the river for decades and he hopes this form of expression can have an impact.

"I can go and row with the government anytime but if I do that, then I am just a black troublemaker," he said.

"With my artwork, I can put a point across and make it kind to everyone and let the exhibition speak for itself." 

To create the exhibition, Uncle Badger linked up with Sydney-based artist Justine Muller, who first traveled to the outback "by accident".

"The mechanic that fixed my car gave me a dog and said I shouldn't be in the outback by myself, and then that car broke down a second time in Wilcannia," she told NITV News.

"I ended making really good friends with Uncle Badger who became a mentor for me." 

Ms Muller spoke to residents of the town and got a sense of their story. She then contemplated how best it could be told.

"I was very aware of the fact that I was an outsider coming in and I was invited to be on that country. So, with that in mind I was really like, how do I use my privilege and my position to incorporate the voices of these people that should be heard but weren’t getting heard," she said.

"With consultation, I decided to collect footprints from every single person that I could in Wilcannia, so I went to almost every house and Uncle Badger and I collected buckets of clay directly from the dry riverbed.

"The youngest person we got was about 3 months old and the oldest person was in their 90s."

Other works in the exhibit incorporate ceramics, leadlight, lino print, wood and steel sculpture and painting.

"If people don’t help us, the kids, and we all say we need a future for our kids. It does not matter who you are, what colour you are you drink water."

There's also a multi-media installation that involves still images of people that are accompanied by small speakers so you can hear their stories.

It took three years to make and all the materials are from Wilcannia.

Most importantly, all the pieces reflect Uncle Badger's love for his people and his dedication to healing the Barka.

"I am standing here today, not as a black person from the Darling Barka. I am standing here as a person asking other people to help us with this fight," he said.

"If people don’t help us, the kids, and we all say we need a future for our kids. It does not matter who you are, what colour you are you drink water."

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