Carving into Country: The work of Badger Bates

Badger Bates Life Coming Back to Moon Lake, Wilcannia 2011, linocut print, 43 x 73 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Badger Bates, Life coming bad to Moon Lake
Badger Bates, Life Coming Back to Moon Lake, Wilcannia, 2011, linocut print. Courtesy the artist

When I carve I feel I am carving new life into my country and I can hear my old Granny and the other old people singing in the language.[1]

Badger Bates (William Brian Bates) was born on the Darling River at Wilcannia in 1947. His grandmother, Granny Moysey, a revered Paakantyi woman who spoke several Aboriginal languages, raised him, teaching him stories and traditional songs. This was the beginning of Badger’s journey into a complex and sophisticated knowledge system. As a child, Badger experienced the knowledge and practice imparted by his grandmother which informs his artwork today. Badger learnt carving from her and other Paakantyi elders, and by 1986 he was selling his carvings of wood and emu eggs to the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Badger was employed by New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife as an Aboriginal Sites Officer for more than twenty years and is now a full-time artist and cultural consultant. His work is in nationally renowned collections including the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Apart from being in numerous private collections, Badger has also created various public art works throughout Australia. In 2008 Badger was involved in the state-wide exhibition Ngadhu, Ngulili, Ngeaninyagu, curated by Djon Mundine at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney. In 2011 Badger held a solo exhibition with EMED Mining in Spain titled Desde la tierra aborigen de Australia: Linoleos Badger Bates. In general, Badger works within the media of linocut printing, wood, emu egg and stone carving and metalwork.

The artwork of Badger Bates re-lives his experience of Country and presents us with a materialist account of this experience in concert with stories handed down to him from his Granny Moysey. His works provide the living connection between practice and Country that is inherent in an Indigenous conception of the world. The work he creates operates in a methexical way in that they are performed through and by the premise of carving. Bates’ carving intertwines the relationship between Country and visual practice and it is in this sense that the works become methexical. Methexis means participation and, as Paul Carter observes, it is a performative action that brings something into being. “Methexis was the ‘non-repreentative’ principle behind Celtic, and Aranda, art, whose spirals and mazes reproduced, by an act of concurrent actual production, a pattern danced on the ground.”[2]

Carter’s methexis emphasises a physical ground and it is through this ground that Indigenous practices resonate. Indigenous culture is based on ancestral histories where various aspects of culture are not isolated. For example, there is no distinction between art, culture and living in the mediated experience of human beings. Bringing something into being through Country is an important aspect of Bates’ work.

Paakantyi Country in western New South Wales contains ancient rock engravings that are around 20,000 years old and this type of etching into rock is what Bates has transformed into mark-making through the process of carving into wood, lino and emu eggs. It is through carving that Bates manifests the metaphysical into the material, which has been an ancient tradition of the Paakantyi people. This can be seen in the work Kularku (Brolga) Hunting Frogs which tells of the significance of brolgas visiting Wilcannia and the relationship that they have to people performing a dance to emulate the brolga. The carving in this work acts like a filter between the ancient and the present day, the carved marks mirroring the ancient ones found on the rock faces of Paakantyi Country. The work Life Coming Back to Moon Lake, Wilcannia is an example of a work that encompasses the metaphysical, the material and the imaginary. It presents us with the story of the boy in the moon and it is said that if you look at the outlining shape of Lake Woytchugga (Baaytyuka) you will see a young boy’s face looking to the left. Bates retold this story in 2011 when the long-standing drought broke and the Darling River began to fill once more. The work also tells us about the abundance of life that water brings which is of vital importance to Paakantyi people. The work also operates in another way, which further moves the viewer – this time not only conceptually but also physically. The parallel lines flow in and out of each other creating lyrical shapes; this work is musical in its patterning. Its performance is both visual and auditory and is grounded in the reverberation of Country.

This patterning and reverberation is also present in the work Mission Mob, Bend Mob, Wilcannia 1950s. This work not only shows the way the river and Country looked in the 1950s but it maps out Country in a multi-layered way. Firstly, the work presents the locations of the river, mission school, mission houses and different mobs on either side of the river. It also tells of the structures of colonisation on top of Country. Bates is showing us the two mobs created by the process of colonisation, an experience embedded in his memory. This is a direct metaphor of the devastation caused by the creation of missions and the removal of children under government policy at the time. The sophistication of this work is the way it presents a real story in the form of an ancient tradition of carving in a contemporary media. Furthermore, this work is a direct mapping of Country. The performative rhythm is realised in the lines and repeated patterns; they create a sensation that is like the rhythm and sound of a train travelling along its tracks. The patterns mark a physical trace of the carving hand that relives and carves Country, mapping the surface of the ground.

In her examination of an Indigenist research paradigm, Karen Martin presents her relatedness theory within the context of Aboriginal epistemology, communication protocols and discourse. In establishing a theoretical framework of Indigenist research, she states: “The theoretical framework, called relatedness theory, is comprised of three conditions: Ways of Knowing, Ways of Being, and Ways of Doing. These conditions articulate particular orientations to knowing, being and doing that are available to Aboriginal scholars. Thus, Indigenist research methodology is both an enquiry and immersion process.”[3]

In Bates’ art, meaning is embodied and is locally situated. This real world is immaterial and material at the same time. Mission Mob, Bend Mob, Wilcannia 1950s draws us into Country. Line, tone and shape create a methexical mapping, laying the location of Country across the surface. Our re-experiencing of the actions of Bates’ hand forces us to enter the work, to enter Country. This can be re-lived and experienced in the work One Mile Billabong Wilcannia. The repetition of marks is like the beating of a drum and the compositional function of the work draws the viewer in, dragging their eyes across the surface. It is this relationship between the content of the work, the making of the work and the viewing that engenders a physical and sensory response. This is Bates’ methexis. Bates has constructed his work from memory, a real experience of catching yabbies and shrimps as a child.

Bates’ images are extracted from the foundation of his Country and are further demonstrated by his origins: Paakantyi means “river people”. The word Paakantyi further demonstrates the methexical relationship that language has to Country, and in this instance River Country. Language becomes an act or performance that brings Country into being. If the viewer of the work shares in the cultural experience there is a re-living of the experience of the artist and a transfer between artist and viewer. This can extend to individuals beyond culture resulting in the emergence of an empathetic relationship made possible through art. In this sense, Indigenous culture is vital to a refiguring of the function of art. Art has a different function within the broader spectrum of cultural practices. It is in this ideology and culture of methexis, where there is no false consciousness, that real experience can be transferred between cultures. It is this interconnectedness or, in Karen Martin’s words, “relatedness” that demonstrates the premise of the real relationship that Aboriginal people have to an inseparable cultural ideology premised on Country. And, in the instance of Bates’ work, a carving into Country.

Badger Bates, Mission Mob, Bend Mob, Bend Mob, Wilcannia 1950s
Badger Bates, Mission Mob, Wilcannia 1950s, 2009, linocut print. Image courtesy the artist
Badger Bates, One Mile Billabong, 2005, linoprint. Courtesy the artist
Badger Bates, One Mile Billabong, 2005, linoprint. Courtesy the artist

Footnotes

  1. ^ Badger Bates in Desde la tierra aborigen de Australia: Linoleos Badger Bates, EMED Mining, Spain, 2011, p. 93.
  2. ^ Paul Carter, The Lie of the Land, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p. 84.
  3. ^ Karen Martin, Please Knock Before You Enter: Aboriginal regulation of outsiders and the implications for researchers, Post Press, Queensland, 2008, p. 9.

Badger Bates (William Brian Bates) was born on the Darling River at Wilcannia in 1947. His grandmother, Granny Moysey, a revered Paakantyi woman, spoke several Aboriginal languages, raised him and aught him stories and traditional songs. Brian Martin is an artist and researcher at Deakin University.