You could not find a more unassuming pair. Maybe in a wild indy road movie.
He's a male. She's a female.
He's Aboriginal. She's not.
He's from the country. She's from the city.
Meet Justine Muller, an accomplished artist and photographer. Originally from Sydney, she was an Archibald Prize finalist in 2020 (for a portrait of her godfather, Jack Mundey) and has been a finalist in the Moran Portrait Prize, the Moran Contemporary Photography Prize, the Portia Geach Portrait Prize and the Dobell Prize for Drawing.
Meet Badger Bates, who works in linoprint, wood, emu egg and stone carving, and metalwork. He reflects the motifs, landforms, animals, plants and stories of Barkindji land. He was born on the Darling River in Wilcannia in 1947. He has artworks in the National Gallery of Australia and and the MCA in Sydney.
And, yes, there's a travelling dog, too, called Denzi. A cattle dog of sorts, a rescue dog, who was given to her for protection, and has been on the road with her ever since. He's got his own instagram account, too.
Together, Bates and Muller have created a powerful exhibition, Barka, the forgotten River that reflects the love they have for the Barka, or Darling River and its people, the Barkandji. The exhibition, first shown in Broken Hill, opens on Saturday at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery.
A brief summary of Barka explains: "Motivated by a deep concern for the collapse and near-disappearance of the Barka-Darling River - something that will have ripple effects Australia-wide - works in the exhibition by Badger span the past two decades combined with Muller's more recent responses to the region and its people. They take the form of ceramics, leadlight, lino print, wood and steel sculpture, and painting, in addition to a multi-media installation."
The two met when Muller became stranded in the Wilcannia area about seven years ago. She had spent time at Fowlers Gap, a UNSW research station in western NSW, painting on her own, when her car broke down, not once, but twice.
She developed a strong relationship with Wilcannia locals, which is how she came to have a dog, which was given to her.
The longer she stayed, the more she focused on the locals, painting portraits and taking photos, which she posted on Everyday Australia on instagram. One of her images reached the finals of the Moran Portrait Prize.
Muller had taken to asking Bates, a community elder, for cultural advice before posting any images of life in Wilcannia, and a friendship grew out of that which became a collaboration, that grew into the Barka exhibition.
"It was such an amazing invitation," Muller says. "For the next three years, I basically returned to Wilcannia. Over the three years, I started to paint more people."
Over time, Muller says, it became obvious the show would be about the river.
"It had to be about the river," she says. "The river to the Barkindji people is everything. It's like the most important thing to them. They consider it their lifeblood, their mother. It's so entwined in their culture."
The trials and tribulations of the Darling River, the entire Darling-Murray network, are well known. It's a complex issue, which affects many people.
It's environmental demise has been hard on the Barkindji. This show has shed light on their plight. Starting in Broken Hill, it has toured over three years, showing in Adelaide and Canberra.
Bates is glad the show has been well received. "It needs to make people aware of what is happening," he says. "Everyone talks about the future. It's alright for rich people to talk about the future. What about people with nothing?"
Curator Ineke Duke from Broken Hill, summarises: "Badger and Muller ask us to listen, and act. Their works are not of despair, they are works of strength, compassion and resilience, and through them they invite the rest of Australia to partake in a story that is no longer local but global."
Muller says the show is on its own journey, with community support literally paying the way for the show to travel.