Sydney, 16 March 2023: A new First Nations exhibition opening at the Australian Museum today, Barka: The Forgotten River, brings together works by artist and Barkandji Elder, Uncle Badger Bates and visual artist Justine Muller to tell the stories of the magnificent Barka (Darling River) and its current plight. The longest river in Australia at 1,472km, the Barka is under threat and the curators want us to understand the need to repair the relationship with the river and its valuable resources.

The exhibition features objects from the AM’s First Nations collection, which along with Bates’ and Muller’s artworks combine carvings, sculptures and audio-visual production to convey the importance of this extraordinary NSW river system and bring into sharp focus the environmental impacts it is facing. This free exhibition, supported by The Balnaves Foundation, will be open to the public in Hintze Hall from Thursday 16 March through to Sunday 23 July 2023.

Focussing on the stories, culture, and people who depend on Barka as a life source, the exhibition has been a 20-year project for Uncle Badger. Born and raised on the river in Wilcannia, his grandmother Granny Moysey, showed Uncle Badger how to carve and taught him about his Barkandji Culture while travelling along the river.

Barka - Sunset of Lake Menindee - 8 Dec 2022
Uncle Badger Bates watches the sun set over Menindee Lake, the largest lake of the Menindee Lakes system. The water is an opaque milky colour and fish carcass litter the shoreline of rocks and red gum. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Uncle Badger uses sculptures, leadlight, lino print, wood, and steel to bring our attention to the predicament the Barka and its communities face. Muller tells these stories using photography, video, sound recordings, ceramics and paintings she made on site in Wilcannia with Community participation. The collaboration between the two artists and their mixed media along with cultural objects from the AM’s renowned collection take the visitor on an unforgettable journey.

Uncle Badger says that rivers give so much more than water – they provide strength and vitality to all who use them.

“Where rivers wander, life can flourish. Rivers and surrounding areas are home to different plants and species such as fish, yabbies, mussels, turtles, birds, and Red River Gums. These animals and plants have been an important cultural and food source for the Barkandji people who have relied on the Barka’s interconnected ecosystems for thousands of years,” Uncle Badger said.

The Barka’s headwaters form in Northern NSW and it joins the mighty Murray River at Wentworth in western NSW, creating the lifeblood and economic resource of communities and towns across four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Its basin covers over one million square kilometres, and more than three million people depend upon its flowing water for sustenance and irrigation. For Barkandji people it is the source of everything, it is the giver of life and it is central to their Culture.

Print, 'Barka the Forgotten River and desecration of Menindee Lake', paper, Badger Bates, New South Wales, Australia
'Barka the Forgotten River and desecration of Menindee Lake', print on paper, Uncle Badger Bates, New South Wales, Australia. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Rivers have shaped us as a species, long before we have shaped them. The modern world has attempted to change, divert, straighten and drain them. We must now restore our ‘Barka’ so she may help restore us. Artist and Barkandji Elder, Uncle Badger Bates

Justine Muller, who sought a blessing from an Elder before traveling out onto Country, said that not only was it a great privilege to be welcomed into the community, but their generosity and teachings enabled her to translate shared knowledge into a visual lens of her own. From a Western prism, it is the hope that others similar to herself will have the ability to see the importance and beauty of this culture and its wisdom.

“It was through their welcome and their care that I was able to learn and contribute in my own way to the
wellbeing of the Barka. Their deep spiritual connection to Country and all its surrounding elements will not only transcend time but will be essential to its survival. Through observation, reciprocity, and practice they have learnt to live with the land, whereas we live off it,” Muller said.

“I hope that through this exhibition we can help bridge the cultural gaps and remind visitors of ancient truths which are now more relevant than ever,” Muller added.

Laura McBride, who is the Director of First Nations at the Australian Museum said, “Rivers are not merely resources to be used, they should be recognised as living entities with whom we are in a lasting reciprocal relationship. In Barka: The Forgotten River, the use of multiple cultural objects from sculpture, paintings, tools and carved objects illustrates the great cultural and environmental understanding that Barkandji people have regarding the Barka and surrounding landscape.”

Barka - NW NSW Fieldtrip 9 Dec 2022
Aerial of the Menindee Lakes and surrounding areas. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

“Through consultation and collaboration with an Elder on Country, AM curator, Courtney Marsh, a Minjungbal-Yugambeh, Ni-Vanuatu woman, has been dedicated to showcasing how we all need to repair and improve our relationships to the Barka. Using historical items from the AM collection and contemporary art works, Marsh reveals how we must understand our river in a more holistic manner,” McBride added.

CEO of The Balnaves Foundation, Hamish Balnaves, said that the spiritual, cultural and ecological philosophy of First Nations peoples means our land and resources were kept in pristine condition for thousands of years.

“The Darling River is under threat, and as a vital resource for the region and the community, the Foundation is proud to partner with the Australian Museum to highlight the plight of the Barka. We support the traditional custodians and seek to communicate the ecological and cultural values to a broader audience through this exhibition,” Mr Balnaves said.

Barka is presented in four sections with visitors following two different paths – one to a healthy and thriving ecosystem and one towards devastating environmental and social impacts that will be felt far beyond its dry banks.

The four sections are:

  • In Our Veins

    The Barka is the lifeblood of not only Barkandji People and Country but of wider NSW. Caring for the river is central to Barkandji Culture, but we can all participate in caring for Country.

  • Lore Keepers

    When we respect and look after Country, we are practicing good Culture or Lore. When Lore is kept, the Barka is healthy, and everything along the river can thrive: the people, plants, and animals.

  • Agri/Culture

    Barkandji people have lived and thrived along the river for thousands of years using sustainable land management practices guided by Culture. Climate change, and land and water mismanagement has meant that everyone along the river is suffering. This is the result of acting without Culture, but there is always time to help Country.

  • Kulpa-Kulpa

    Listen to the people who have loved Barka for generations, their joyful memories of a healthy clean river, their sorrow at its current state, and be spurred to action by their ongoing fight for Barka.

Exhibition details:

Dates: 16 March – 23 July 2023

Where: Hintze Hall, Ground level, Australian Museum

Cost: Entry is free due to the generous support from The Balnaves Foundation.

Opening Night activities: As part of Nights at the Museum, on Wednesday 15 March from 5pm, there will be a special event for community and the general public to open Barka with performers, talks and more.

Exhibition information here

Media images and video.

Download the Media Release

About the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. The AM’s mission is to ignite wonder, inspire debate and drive change. The AM’s vision is to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The AM commits to transforming the conversation around climate change, the environment and wildlife conservation; to being a strong advocate for First Nations cultures; and to continuing to develop world-leading science, collections, exhibitions and education programs. With 22 million objects and specimens and the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM is not only a dynamic source of reliable scientific information on some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, but also an important site of cultural exchange and learning.

Media Contacts

Claire Vince, Media and Communications Adviser

T 0468 726 910

E Claire.Vince@Australian.Museum