Nici Cumpston

Barkandji people, New South Wales


The Barka, our Darling River, is currently in a state of crisis, so we need to speak up and protect it, as it is no longer able to provide for us. As a nation we are all responsible to take action, as eventually it will affect us all.

One way we can nurture the Rivers is to humanise them, so they can be empowered to have the rights that protect them from harmful human intervention. These portraits of our precious trees and waterways are created to give them reverence and to provide an important platform to share stories of Aboriginal occupation and ongoing survival on our land.

In early 2019 I went on a road trip to visit my family and to see for myself what state our River was in. I thought I had driven into hell the day I arrived in Wilcannia. It was hot, dry and dusty and all life looked like it was expiring before me. 

Under the bridge over the Barka, in the heart of town, were stagnant pools of acid-green slimy water slowly seeping into the otherwise dry riverbed. All I could think was how are the local people surviving? Without flowing freshwater, there are no fish, the water birds are diminishing, and people have to rely on salty bore water for all of their essential needs.  

The Murray Darling Basin produces one third of Australia’s food. Yet here we are facing a situation whereby this is seriously threatened unless changes are made to water allocations. This is a major crisis situation that has been caused by much more than drought and every living being along this waterway is suffering.

The images that follow are a record of my journey and through this work I pay tribute to my ancestors, to my family and friends and all who are fighting to raise awareness of our plight, and to the hope that together we can change this disastrous situation. 

Artist bio

Nici Cumpston is a proud Barkandji artist, curator, writer and educator.

Having studied fine arts, specialising in Photography at the University of South Australia, she has worked as a photographic lecturer and wrote and delivered the inaugural course Indigenous Art, Culture and Design at the University of South Australia.

Cumpston is the Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia and since 2014 has also been the Artistic Director of Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art with an annual Art Fair and major exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

She has been exhibiting her works of art since 1998 and in that time has been invited to participate in many prestigious awards and group exhibitions. Her work is held in major institutions and private collections nationally and internationally.

Cumpston combines her time curating, collaborating and creating her own photographic works that share stories of Aboriginal occupation and ongoing survival on the land.


Road repair outside Menindee, far western NSW

Menindee Lakes

Old metal map of the Menindee Lakes

Menindee to Wilcannia, western side of the Barka

Menindee to Wilcannia, whirly welcome

It came close I had to slow right down


Wilcannia is the cultural heart of New South Wales’ Uncle Badger Bates.

Uncle Badger Bates is an acclaimed artist, cultural leader and spokesperson working tirelessly for our Barkandji Nation. As an Elder he actively shares cultural knowledge in order to support our next generations to be the leaders of the future. He has done the voiceover in the empowering film clip: The Wilcannia Mob Intergeneration – ‘Our Country Our Way’


Video Courtesy


The Barka, Wilcannia

Wilcannia bridge over the Barka

Stagnant water, Barka, Wilcannia


Great-grandmother Barka

This image pays tribute to my Barkandji family, whose connections are evident along the waterways throughout what is now known as the Murray Darling basin.

Great grandmother Barka, 2021
pigment inkjet print
80 x 80 cm
Image courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Gallery


Barka run from Wilcannia to Menindee to Wentworth

Barka I

Barka II

Barka III

Barka IV

Ring tree trophy

Barka our Darling River


We are Barkandji people, River people who belong to the Barka. Barka is our name for the Darling River and we are campaigning for the recognition of a dual name to create more respect for the Barka amongst people and government departments. We are doing this to honour our ongoing responsibility to care and nurture for our precious waterways and all that live and breathe along it. This image was taken where the Barka and the Murray River meet near Wentworth in New South Wales.

Barka our Darling River, 2020
pigment inkjet print
60 x 84 cm
Courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Gallery


Backwaters of the Murray

Backwater messenger

Barka messenger II

Walking along the backwaters of the Murray, I am mindful of converging flows further upstream that carry messages from my precious Barka, our Darling River.


On the sandy edge of Nookamka Lake within a bed of fine mussel shell grit, a lone ring tree stands sentinel. Holding watch over a sacred Lake sustaining Aboriginal people from this area for millennia, as well as many different language groups who have come to share important information.

The ring was made when the tree was a sapling; it is a boundary marker as well as a sign indicating this as an important place for gathering and as a place of abundance.

The majestic tree is dead. Since colonisation dramatic change continues for our people and our waterways. The mussel shells no longer grow to the grand old age that they did when the fresh water flowed along the Murray Darling Basin, prior to intervention and greed.  Vital to the health of our river, the mussels filter and clean the water.

Bared exposes this situation, and symbolises the strength we have in working together towards overcoming the travesty of over allocation of water and the appalling water buy back scheme which jeopardises the livelihood of all Australians who have built their lives around our River systems.

Bared, 2020
pigment inkjet print
dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Gallery



Riverland, South Australia

My happy place wandering the backwaters looking for signs of Aboriginal occupation.


Nookamka I

Nookamka II

Trixie at her happy place


Oh my Murray Darling

Oh my Murray Darling, 2019
pigment inkjet print
75 x 175 cm
Courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Gallery

Past Actions

07 Jun - 13 Jun 2021

Unbound Collective

31 May - 06 Jun 2021

OLC Art Collective

24 May - 30 May 2021

Naomi Hobson

17 May - 23 May 2021

Adrft Lab

10 May - 16 May 2021

Pat Brassington

03 May - 09 May 2021

Eddie Abd

26 Apr - 02 May 2021

Loren Kronemyer

19 Apr - 25 Apr 2021

Guo Jian

12 Apr - 18 Apr 2021

Kenny Pittock

05 Apr - 11 Apr 2021

Jannawi Dance Clan

29 Mar - 04 Apr 2021

Gillian Kayrooz

22 Mar - 28 Mar 2021

Nathan Beard

15 Mar - 21 Mar 2021

Pilar Mata Dupont

08 Mar - 14 Mar 2021

Michael Cook

01 Mar - 07 Mar 2021

Seini F Taumoepeau

22 Feb - 28 Feb 2021

Dani Marti

15 Feb - 21 Feb 2021

Lill Colgan & Sab D'Souza

08 Feb - 14 Feb 2021

Chris Yee

01 Feb - 07 Feb 2021

Rochelle Haley

25 Jan - 31 Jan 2021

Karrabing Film Collective

18 Jan - 24 Jan 2021

Nici Cumpston

11 Jan - 17 Jan 2021

Johnathon World Peace Bush

07 Dec - 13 Dec 2020


30 Nov - 06 Dec 2020

Raquel Ormella

23 Nov - 29 Nov 2020

Léuli Eshrāghi

16 Nov - 22 Nov 2020

Rolande Souliere

09 Nov - 15 Nov 2020

TV Moore

02 Nov - 08 Nov 2020

Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu

26 Oct - 01 Nov 2020

Ivey Wawn

19 Oct - 25 Oct 2020

Naomi Blacklock

12 Oct - 18 Oct 2020

Sancintya Mohini Simpson

05 Oct - 11 Oct 2020

Yhonnie Scarce

28 Sep - 04 Oct 2020

Ruha Fifita

21 Sep - 27 Sep 2020

Kaylene Whiskey

14 Sep - 20 Sep 2020

Adam Linder

07 Sep - 13 Sep 2020

Archie Barry

31 Aug - 06 Sep 2020

Min Wong

24 Aug - 30 Aug 2020

Hayley Millar-Baker

17 Aug - 23 Aug 2020

Erin Coates

10 Aug - 16 Aug 2020

Diego Bonetto

03 Aug - 09 Aug 2020

Tyza Hart

27 Jul - 02 Aug 2020

Larissa Hjorth

20 Jul - 26 Jul 2020

Louise Zhang

13 Jul - 19 Jul 2020

Henri Papin (Meijers & Walsh)

06 Jul - 12 Jul 2020


29 Jun - 05 Jul 2020

Rainbow Chan

22 Jun - 28 Jun 2020

Jason Phu

15 Jun - 21 Jun 2020

Abdul Abdullah

08 Jun - 14 Jun 2020

Patricia Piccinini

01 Jun - 07 Jun 2020

Brook Andrew

25 May - 31 May 2020


18 May - 24 May 2020

James Tylor