It’s almost impossible to avoid the Man from the Barka (the Darling River) in this year’s Sydney Biennale. He greets you at the impressive Cutaway beneath Barangaroo’s artifical parkland with a mighty Ngatji – Rainbow Serpent – in stainless steel. At the Art Gallery of NSW his skill at lino-carving the curves of his riverine Country has survived a massive expansion taking up the whole of one side of the main hall and again in the Old Courts, where another is a backdrop to a flotilla of river craft by different First Nations clans.

This show ain’t called ‘rivus‘ – Latin for stream – for nothing.

But actually, the Badger’s finest current contribution to Sydney, which will survive long after a dozen Biennales have come and gone, is tucked away in Darlinghurst. But it’s well worth a visit. For the Ramsey Foundation – more associated with academic angst than Indigenous commissioning – has employed Bates to design ornamental gates to their recently opened HQ, in a former Christian Science church.

His magnificent response protects the three gaps between the church’s faux-Grecian columns, and offers that Ngatji again, the Barka itself – or is it a willy-willy carrying the legendary Seven Sisters skywards – and a clutch of Darling Lillies surmounted by totemic eagle and crow. Bates is an eagle. On the temple’s antechamber ceiling, he’s painted the heavens from a First Nations perspective – the Dark Emu prominent.

It’s a magnificent response to the City of Sydney’s requirement that Ramsey added something of cultural value to their repurposing of the temple. As ever, with something of this substance, it wasn’t a solo effort. But the essential blacksmithing by Matt Mewburn in an Everley forge served to bring back memories for the Badger of his Irish great-grandfather, Pappa George, who’s fiery work was so admired by the youngster 70 years ago. Bates also claimed an Everley connection: “Our people worked in the railway sheds there. This all made it so much easier to work out the transformation from image to 3D with Matt, and push the central gates up to 4.3metres”.
Inside, the Ramsey Foundation’s main foyer continues in Indigenous mode with wall-works by Julie Gough and Lorraine Connelley-Northey, and a line of Dilly Bags woven in “salvaged wool” by a relative, Lucy Williams Connelley.

Apart from this Liverpool Street draw-card, surely the Biennale of Sydney’s big hit is the Barangaroo Cutaway. This massive cavity feels fully engaged for the first time, with one bamboo work by Sydney’s Cave Urban cooperative stretching its full length. Apart from the fine Bates/Mewburn Ngatji, a serious conceptual First Nations contribution comes from D Harding – the Gungalu/Bidjura artist who used to be known as Dale, but who now opts for the pronoun ‘they’. They have created a work which many will ignore, for its extensive recyclable cardboard surface appears almost untouched.

In fact, D walked its considerable length many times holding a wet brush, his constant pressure eventually capturing a faint simulacrum of Mimosa Creek on Country near Worrabinda, the former Queensland mission where his family live. The Creek has gone dry, and his Uncles Milton and Steve are keenly trying to revive it with a 200 km walk down to the Dawson River. Private landowners are reluctant to permit access and barbed wire fences don’t encourage visitation. “We need to get Aborigines back in touch with the country’s waterways”, D told the audience at a BOS opening weekend talk. “This Country has evidence of 19,000 years of understanding”.

Bringing conceptualism into the Herrmansberg School of painting might seem a stretch. But
the mob at Iltja Ntjarra in Mparntwe are doing their best to add spice to their familiar water-colours. How about taking a once bright red road-sign warning of roadwork ahead – a male figure in the act of digging – and have him excavate a serene Namatjira-style landscape. That’s what Selma Nunay Coulthard has done rather effectively – along with similar road-sign amendments by Vanessa and Dellina Inkamala, Betty and Marcus Wheeler and Mervyn Rubuntja.

A selling exhibition of similar works is at Cross Arts in Sydney’s Kings Cross until 15th April.

There’s more Indigenous politics as the BOS returns to Wharf 2/3 along Hickson Road. Now primarily a base for arts organisations, some of the timbered masterpiece has been reserved for displays. And the folks on the Torres Strait Islands want to remind us that they are often a lot closer to the rising seas than this elevated wharf is. Under the guidance of Yessie Mosby, they’ve accumulated multiple panels of protest material under the rubric, ‘Oceans Are Rising, So Are We’.

All grist to ‘rivus‘ mill – the environment is at the core of all Biennale artists’ contributions, which many may find clearer than some of the nebulous concepts supposedly guiding Biennales past. Perhaps there are a few too many retorts passing water to little purpose. But generally, across five venues featuring 330 artworks from eighty-nine participants, we are given pause for thought.