A small but powerful exhibition which opened recently at the Australian Museum in Sydney is offering both insights into the traditional way of life of the Barkandji people of western NSW and some specific encouragement to take political action to return them to harmony with their river, the Darling or Barka. Justifying its importance, artist Badger Bates, the instigator of ‘Barka – The Forgotten River’ exhibition, explains simply in his opening statement, “Barka is one of my three mothers”.

Bates’s co-curator is non-Indigenous artist Justine Muller, whose car broke down, trapping her in Wilcannia, where she met Badger, formed an instant friendship, and was introduced to Barkandji people and culture by him over the next 3 years. One result is a series of portraits of the people by her on locally found tin sheets – each accompanied by moving memories of the good ol’ days when the Barka was a constant source of both stories from their grannies and food that allowed them a self-sufficiency that’s impossible today.

“Today it looks sad”, is the quiet but constant refrain, following 20 years of deterioration. The causes are clearly listed: “Carp, cotton, drought, and lake draining, leading to algeal blooms and the “massacre” of fish in their millions.

And massacre is the appropriate word when you read that “The little Nhaampa (Bony Bream) are the totem of many Barkandji people, it was like family dying in front of you. The Punkali, Yamaka and Pangula, our food and medicine, gasped for oxygen. It was like a massacre, our people cried and cuddled the Parntu (cod), our ancestor and creator – it is us”.

What better introduction to the complex relationship Aboriginal people had with Country (and everything on it) until colonists came along and destroyed so much while making no effort to understand. And, during the school holidays, it was great to see that the most crowded part of the Museum after its hot ’Sharks’ show was Bayala Nura, the permanent show backgrounding the breadth of First Nations culture. Perhaps the very public debates about the Voice have increased a need to understand?

In the past, the AM has gone even further withÚnsettled’, another political challenge to its patrons.

Now is a dynamic time for Badger Bates. Last year’s Biennale of Sydney featured him in several places, and he has a permanent place in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, where the ornamental gates of the Ramsey Foundation’s offices feature his beloved Barka forged in steel. At the AM, he has a suite of geographically specific prints illustrating the river’s plight, backed up by the statement that despite having their Native Title claim to the area recognised in 2015, the Barkandji have no actual water management powers over their 400 kms of river.

A challenge for the AM’s masters, the new ALP government in NSW to rectify???

For when Justine Muller attempted to gather mud from the Barka’s bed to imprint 200 Barkandji footprints that are now kiln-fired in the exhibition, the toxins accumulated within the river bed gave her such severe skin rashes she had to seek medical help.

In the light of that, perhaps the artists can take comfort from new State Environment Minister Penny Sharpe today calling the Menindee fish kill “a pollution incident”, which will be investigated. She added, “I have visited these communities many times over the years and know the Darling-Barka is the lifeblood of this region. I have seen firsthand First Nations and community connection to these waterways. I will leave no stone unturned to ensure we do what we can to prevent any further adverse environmental impacts”.

And by way of response in June, thousands of fingerlings bred from fish saved during the kill have been released into the Barka with due Barkindji ceremony.

The ceremony, called “Pangala: Returning Home”, was a collaboration between Barkindji custodians, the Cad Factory, the Narrandera fisheries centre, the National Museum of Australia, and West Darling Arts. Videos of Barjkindji custodians and artwork from the Menindee primary school were projected onto the trees at dusk.

Barkindji man Dave Doyle said the ceremony was part of rebuilding the community’s connection to the river, which he said was one of the most critical aspects in rebuilding its health.