Carver, sculptor, printmaker and educator Badger Bates was born William Brian Bates in 1947 in Wilcannia (New South Wales) of a Scottish father and an Aboriginal mother. Raised by his maternal grandmother, Grannie Moisey (1870-1976), he is comfortable in both cultures. “My father was white and my mother was black” Bates said in a 2006 interview with the author, “That’s why I don’t care about the politics. We’re all Australians. We’ve got to accept each other.” (quoted in Lander, Nov 2006).
This pro-active, peaceful attitude is a defining characteristic of the man and was articulated in his public work The Reconciliation Stone , carved from a stone chosen from the local Baradale property, for the people of Wilcannia in 2006. The simple graphic images incorporate the Ngatyi (the Rainbow Serpent) as the creative and symbolic device to hold together an informal arrangement of the different symbols of ethnic groups who participated in the rich history of the region – a Scots Thistle; an Irish Shamrock; an Afghan camel and a Chinese water-carrier, alongside handprints and “an old blackfella’s face… looking up into the sky. That person is looking for (the) protection of the Ursas (constellations)” (Bates quoted in Lander, Nov 2006). Thus the stone is successful in commemorating the diverse cultural history of the area while retaining the flavour of the ancient rock peckings of local sacred places like Mutawintji and Euriowie. The 'rock peckings’, or rock art, carved in hard rock with quartz (and other stone) tools by Indigenous ancestors over millennia, are a feature of sacred places throughout Australia, and provide an archeological record of the culture, including references to totem animals, tribal history and creation stories.
The Wilcannia Reconciliation Stone was part of a project instigated by the Wilcannia Community Working Party (Chairman: William Bates) in cooperation with Canberra officials, the Central Darling Shire Council and community Elders. Two large stones acquired from Baradale and Goonalga properties, near Wilcannia, were carved by Indigenous artists from the area and installed at Reconciliation Place, Canberra. At the same time, Badger Bates was commissioned to carve a large stone, also acquired from Baradale Station, for the people of Wilcannia. The installation and unveiling at Wilcannia took place on Wednesday, 5 July 2006, to coincide with the unveiling of the two reconciliation stones in Canberra, and is in place at the reserve opposite Wilcannia Health Service.
In a 2006 interview with the author, Bates described his four-sided Reconciliation Stone in this way:
“I’ve got the Darling River at the bottom, then there’s the Rainbow Serpent coming up out of it, blowing a rainbow, and the plaque will be in there. It will say, 'This is the Reconciliation Stone for the Wilcannia Community,’ – that’s black and white – 'and the people that passed on.’ – that means all the ancestors. So it’s the past and present. That’s why I put a paddle steamer on the Darling with the Ngatyi. And up a bit further there’s a Cob & Co coach. The paddle steamer was used for cargo. And why I put Cob & Co coach is because people used it as transport to get around; and also, they built the Cob & Co coaches in Wilcannia. On the top of the stone where the plaque is, that’s the rising sun off the slouch hat that the Diggers wore. I didn’t want the focus to be on Aboriginal stuff. I wanted to mix it all up. Because it doesn’t matter what colour you are, if you’re Australian, you’re Australian, and that’s it. So the slouch hat there, it represents the Diggers.”
As an activist, Bates has campaigned successfully on behalf of Indigenous land rights and the protection of significant sites against spoilage by mining and agricultural practices. After a protracted campaign (1983-98), Mutawintji National Park was handed over to the Local Aboriginal Land Council, headed by Bates’ cousin William Charles Bates. The Council conducts popular tours of Mutawintji, a corroboree site, which is rich in peckings and archaeological remains.
Badger is an Elder of the Paakantji group, and for twenty years (1987-2006) worked as a heritage officer with the Rangers of the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) until he turned fifty-nine, when he retired from the service to carve full-time. Valued for his profound knowledge of his culture, his good humour and his ability to articulate and communicate an Indigenous point of view to international visitors, there have been attempts to lure him back to the service, but Bates says he just wants to “sit by the river and make boomerangs”. He jokes that, one time, a woman in a sight-seeing group approached him and asked him how long it took him to become a ranger. He said, “I’m not a ranger, I’m a bush-ranger”. She asked him what was the difference. He replied, “the rangers protect the animals, I eat 'em.” Badger kills about three to five kangaroos each week (at the time of writing in 2008). He portions out the meat to the old people of his group who cannot hunt any more.
Shortly after resigning, Bates completed a large sandstone carving (seven feet tall) for the Mt Annan Botanical Gardens in New South Wales. The subject is The Stolen Generation (2006); it shows a loving family, encircled by the Ngatyi. A child’s stone footprints lead away from the group. A large rainbow blows from the mouth of the Ngatyi and falling tears are carved down the side of the stone. Though the subject matter is painful, Bates’ treatment is gentle:
“I was raised by my grandmother on the Darling River and Wilcannia. She would send me to relatives in Queensland when the Welfare people come around, otherwise I would have gone to the Missions with the other kids. They was taking all the kids, black and white, and relocating them.”
It took Badger twenty years to find his brother, who was taken from the family when they were both children. Bates harbours no bitterness on racial issues but prefers to respond with logic and humour. While he was carving The Stolen Generation using an electric drill, a whitefella onlooker challenged the authenticity of the work, commenting that the Old People only worked with stone tools. Bates responded “Well mate, if I was to do it like the Old People, I’d be stark naked, and then you’d arrest me for indecent exposure!” Badger Bates is part of a new wave of articulate aboriginal artists, at ease in both worlds, determined to mediate an understanding between the two cultures through his work.
As an art educator, Bates has taught linocut, sculpture and carving to many different groups: the people of Wilcannia, during an artist’s residency there in 2006; the students at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW in Sydney (circa 1990); and in 2008 he conducted a workshop in kite-making for children at the Broken Hill Regional Gallery. Because of his deep connection with the Wilcannia community, he was the first artist to be invited into the new artist-in-residence program instigated by the Wilcannia Arts Group (2006). In April 2008 Bates acquired a house in Wilcannia and used it as a place where “the children of the town can spend time learning to read, write, sculpt and paint.” The place is named 'Badger’s Yapaara’ – yapaara being the Paakantji word for 'house’. Badger’s Yapaara “belongs to everyone, particularly the children,” he said in an interview with the ABC (in Sleath, 2008).
Badger Bates is represented in public collections including the Australian Museum in Sydney (with seven carved emu eggs), the Broken Hill Regional Gallery (with a large carved barque in wood), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (woodblock prints) as well as many private collections across Australia. Bates began to attract notice in the 1990s with his series of woodblock prints and carved emu eggs celebrating stories both from the Dreamings and from his own life around the Darling River. In 1993 a group of his works, including lino cuts, emu eggs and carvings, were exhibited at the Tin Sheds Gallery at Sydney University. Eight of his woodblock prints were used as illustrations in the book Nourishing Terrains (1996).
Bates works in a variety of media including wood, stone, lino, metal and found objects. The themes in his work include contemporary cross-cultural references to anthropological, archeological and political matters within the framework of the songlines of his people. His humour is in evidence in the (constructed) work Echidnas, made from bicycle chains, and in other constructions of native animals made from found objects. He prefers carving and constructing to painting, as he enjoys handling and touching the work. Drawing is merely the preliminary step in the design of the carving. “I use lino because I can make big bold images and use my Baakantji traditional designs to fill in the picture. Lino is like carving emu eggs or wood, which I was taught as a kid at Wilcannia. The wavy lines show the movement of the water, bringing it alive. These lines are what my grandmother used to carve on boomerangs. The lines take you right back to the billabong, like in a dream.” ( Bubbles on the Surface I 2006, unpaginated).
Bates says that his inspiration comes directly from his grandmother and the ancestors, who guide his hands when he works and send him ideas. Although he learned basic printmaking techniques at Broken Hill TAFE (circa 1986), his work retains the flavour of Indigenous traditions and he makes a firm distinction between technical training and learning the traditional skills of carving. The recurrent themes in his work reflect his profound respect for, and connection with, spiritual guides, his insight into human beings and knowledge and love of the land. He said in the 2006 interview with the author: “I know I’m doing it, but it’s not me. It’s hard to explain, but when I pick up something I think about my grandmother and it’s like the old people control my hand, they’re putting it in.”
Badger told this story in conversation with the author (2006): “When I was carving this Reconciliation Stone , there was a whitefella looking at the face on the other side, and I frightened him. He says, 'Oh, you frightened me! I saw your car, but I didn’t see anyone.’ He said, 'I thought it was a crow peckin’ at a piece of plastic. Makin’ this funny noise.’ And I said, 'No Bud, it’s a blackfella pickin’ at this hard stone.’ Then I showed him everything, and he said, 'Gee, that’s good! You go to college, or art school?’ I said, 'No, mate.’ He said, 'Where’d you get your skill from?’ I said, 'Sittin’ on the river bank, makin’ boomerangs. That’s where. Listenin’ to the Old People. Sittin’ on the riverbank makin’ boomerangs.'isn’t happy with

Janis Lander
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