Barka: The Forgotten River

‘Barka: The Forgotten River’ is a collaboration between Barkandji elder Badger Bates, Justine Muller and the Wilcannia community to save the Darling River, or Barka. Featuring ceramics, leadlight, lino print, wood and steel sculpture, painting, and multi-media installation, the show captures the exhaustion of individuals fighting to prevent the collapse of the Barka-Darling River.

Large sections of the Barka-Darling River are dry, or dotted with stagnant puddles, due to irrigators and government mismanagement in the Barwon-Darling system, and earlier this year the local community gathered to voice its collective lament. ‘Oh, the Darling River. We are the people of the river. The Barkindji people of the river. The river is our home,’ chanted children as they marched along the town’s bridge. Over the past few years the phrase ‘the Barka’s buka’ has emerged, meaning the Darling River’s dead.

The exhibition, which is staged at Broken Hill Regional Gallery, is ‘Poetic and political at once,’ comments Curator Ineke Dane. The works ‘reach to the past to inform the future, because all time is one. They speak of a correlation between the descent of the Barka-Darling and the dispiriting of a culture and its people whose name is eponymous to the river: the Barkandji.’

Interdisciplinary works by Bates span the past two decades of his output, reflecting the motifs, landforms, animals, plants and stories of Barkandji country and the Barka-Darling River. Born on the river at Wilcannia, the artist materialises his enduring sense of identity with the beloved Barka through processes of carving. In his installation Fragile River, 2018, Bates has engraved mussel shells with representations of native fauna, visualising how Barkandji existence and lore are etched into the very fabric of the Barka. Dangling from a suspended branch, these fragile objects evoke the precariousness of present times – where humans are so easily destroying that which was preserved by First Peoples for thousands of years.

Informed by recent travels on Country, as well as long periods of time spent living with First Nation communities, Muller’s work offers direct responses to the region and its people. The artist works with materials sourced on location, such as her portraits of the Braknadji people which are painted onto pressed Wilcannia tin – the same tin that the locals used to build their homes when they lived along the banks of the Darling River. In River of Hope, 2018, an installation of community footprints pressed into river clay adorned with sand and objects sourced from the Barka weaves through the gallery space in a poignant path of solidarity. This work posits the river as the backbone of the community, past and present.

‘The sickness of the Barka River is the sickness of a mother, a sister, a father or a brother’, reflects Dane. ‘The Barka is now teetering on a precipice, a point of no return. She has been calling and crying for attention for so long her throat is dry, her mouth cracked. Badger and Muller ask us to listen, and act. Their works are not of despair, they are works of strength, compassion and resilience, and through them they invite the rest of Australia to partake in a story that is no longer local but global.’

Barka: The Forgotten River
8 June – 29 July 2018
Broken Hill Regional Gallery, NSW



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