The River People’s Lament

Behind Badger Bates' Lino-cut Works

Artist and activist Badger Bates is a Barkandji elder from Wilcannia near the Barka (Darling) River in far western New South Wales. His people are river people and, as a result, much of his art focuses on the Barka and the people and animals that are dependent on its flow.

Badger was born in 1947 and raised by his Granny Moysey, a Barkandji Elder who taught him the stories and songs of his peoples’ Country and how to live off the land. Granny Moysey and other Barkandji Elders also showed him their way of carving on wood and emu eggs.

Adding to the skills that the Elders had taught him, Badger took up lino printing in the early 1990s. Although the new tools and technique took a bit of getting used to, bringing his finely honed carving skills to the medium led to recognition in the art world, with Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, and Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales and Museum of Contemporary Art all showing his work.

In Aboriginal culture time isn’t viewed as constantly moving forward, there is no separation between past, present and future – everything is now. When Badger works on a linocut he is bringing into a tangible form the stories and spirit of his country. Whenever he picks up a tool he is expressing his ancestral knowledge, his movements are guided by all those who have gone before, are here now and will come afterwards.

Commonly featured in Badger’s prints are the Barka River and Ngatji, the Rainbow Serpent, the creator who helped to bring into being the landscape, emu, kangaroo and fish. The print Life on the Darling River shows the Ngatji as the central motif around which all life revolves and Teaching Hunting tells the story of the animals and the tracks they leave on the shores of the Barka, as well as the tools the Barkandji people use to catch them. According to Barkandji culture, the Ngatji still resides in the Barka and by including these beliefs in his art Badger guarantees the ongoing health and vitality of his culture.

The pumping of water from the Barka for cotton farming has become an issue for the residents of Broken Hill, for Badger and his people it is the literal draining of their life force and their reason for being.