Badger Bates

To celebrate 'Barka: The Forgotten River' at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, we share Tara Callaghan's interview with Barkantji Elder Badger Bates – a key artist in the show – from Issue 48 (2019).

Badger Bates is a Barkantji Elder, a political activist and contemporary artist. Working primarily in printmaking, wood and stone carving, Bates’ practice is intrinsically linked to his lifelong fight for the safety and health of the Barka (the Darling River).

Tell me about where you come from.

My name is William Brian Bates, but they call me Badger. I was born in Wilcannia in 1947 and reared up on the Barka in a tin hut. I travelled a lot up and down the river with my Granny and Grandfather when I was growing up, mostly so I wouldn’t be taken away by welfare and become one of the Stolen Generation. I met Aboriginal people from different tribes. I used to sit down with them and listen and learn; and that’s how I learnt to respect everyone. Granny used to teach me how to carve emu eggs, boomerangs and other artefacts. She used to tell me about our country, about the Barka and how we should all respect the Ngatyi (Rainbow Serpent) that lives in it.

You’re well known as a political activist and spokesperson for the Barka; how important is this to you?

I am a Barka Wiimpatja – that means I’m a Darling River black person. When I was a kid we didn’t have much money, the Barka fed us. It was like a supermarket, we ate yabbies, shrimps, fish and turtles. The old River Red Gum trees had grubs in the roots, the landscape was our food source. Some of our trees are really old and every time I’m with them it puts me in mind of the old people. Us Barkantji people have sites that go back tens of thousands of years. Now we’re all here together both black and white people and we must get together and help protect the Barka and tell the government what they are doing is wrong.

The world’s eyes were on the Barka recently when more than a million fish washed up dead at Menindee; what do you think caused this?

I know that the blue green algae killed those fish but what it all comes down to is water mismanagement. The native fish were trapped there for their deaths. They couldn’t swim up and past the main weir because there’s a big wall and there’s no fish way and no water. And so, I hope that the government is proud for what they did, if they’d have left water in the Menindee Lakes instead of letting everything go eighteen months before and managed the river properly those fish wouldn’t have died. They go around with this water sharing plan, but it isn’t worth the piece of paper that it’s written on. Everybody knows that people were taking the water who weren’t meant to. But it still all goes back to really bad crooked management of the waterways by the government. Us Barkantji people, we got our native title rights in 2015. I am a Barka Wiimpatja, so I’ve got a right to water, I’ve got a right to cultural water.

I’m not a scientist but I was reared up on that river and I am seventy-one years of age. I never seen anything like what happened in Menindee in 2018–2019.

What inspires and drives you to make your artwork?

When I start getting out there and being an activist for water, people just look at me and say ‘Oh, he’s just a trouble-making blackfella’, and they do the same to white people. I love my artwork because it puts me in mind of the old people and their stories, and a lot of my work is focused on the Barka and on Barkantji stories. But one of the main things that really inspires me is the kids. Both black and white kids, they have no colour when they talk about the river. They come up and say ‘Hello Uncle Badger how you going? It’s good what you doing for the river’, and that inspires me to keep going.

Your artwork about the cod eating the yabbies; can you talk to me about this in the context of the ecology of the Barka?

The cod is eating the yabbies but also, in the cod’s stomach is the old river mussels and a bit of river weed. When I was young we had heaps of yabbies in the Barka, there was heaps of mussels and little small ones about the size of my fingernail. The cod could mush them up and eat them. The old mussels could grow about four to six inches across, but the problem is we’re not finding small ones, they’re not breeding. 

The weeds in the Barka are just about gone too and I think that weed, it acted as a filter, back in the days when I was small there was no blue green algae. So, the mussels now they’re dying. Through my artwork I try to get people to understand that everything in the Barka helps the Barka to survive. 

You’re carving special objects for ‘Tarnanthi’ where you will be one of the feature artists at the Art Gallery of South Australia this year. What are you making?

I’m making bundis (nulla nullas), wannas (boomerangs) and a shield. The katjaru is a nulla nulla with a big head on them, both men and women could use these for games and for hunting. When you throw a nulla nulla the longer the handle the better the spin; if you were hunting a goanna or a rabbit you have more chance of hitting them. I’m also making a mungabuttaka (lil lil) – they are really rare, we don’t make them much. 

You start off by getting the right tree with the right bend and you have to cut it down to shape with a tommy axe and it takes the right eye to see that. It was a handheld weapon, the Barkantji elders carried it in a possum skin belt on their side. I was at the Art Gallery of South Australia with Nici Cumpston and I spotted a mungabuttaka on display and I said, ‘Nici that’s Barkantji, that’s ours’. It’s as if something was driving me to make one, and I thought once I master it, I can teach the young people how to.

As well as your lino prints and carvings you have an impressive array of commissioned public artworks around the country. Tell me about the stone carving at Mutawintji National Park?

The first time I carved stone was in 1991 out in the hills for the Broken Hill Living Desert sculptures. I learnt a lot up there, the other artists were teaching me and shouting me tools. The stone sculpture at Mutawintji is carved in honour of Uncle George Dutton, a Mutawintji traditional owner who handed down important cultural knowledge. On one side it tells a story as passed down by Uncle George about a young man and his greedy Uncle who got stranded on the Moon. On the other side I put two Barkantji moieties; Kilpara which is represented by Waku the Crow, and Makwara which is represented by Bilyara the Eaglehawk.

What else would you like people to know about the Barkantji culture and the Barka?

At Menindee Lakes, we got a mussel shell midden, a fireplace, carbon-dated back 45,000 years. Barkantji people and the mussels lived on the Barka for over 45,000 years, it was sustainable. The big river mussels and other little critters in the river plus the river weed, they play a big part in the management. If we don’t keep water in the river it’ll all die, and that is really is a disaster. How can you teach culture from an empty river? You can’t. And it’s not just blackfellas’ culture, it’s whitefellas’ culture too, everyone got a culture on the Barka. 

The township of Menindee was where Burke and Wills came through, and Wilcannia was called the Queen City of the West, that was culture for the white people. And how did it happen? It happened because of the Barka. You go there and look where the paddle steamer went and you couldn’t even put a bark canoe in there now. When I talk about culture, it’s not just us Barkantji people. It’s for everyone, we’ve all got culture and we’ve all got connection to the water.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 48, 2021.

Barka: The Forgotten River
12 June – 5 September 2021
Maitland Regional Art Gallery, NSW

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