How APY artist Betty Muffler uses painting as a means to heal country

Betty Muffler is a ngangkari, a traditional doctor – and her highly prized artwork, featured on the cover of Vogue Australia’s September 2020 issue, is another tangent in her healing practice.

“When I’m painting, I’m touching the canvas and I’m feeling good energy – it’s connecting with my spirit and all of these feelings become part of my painting,” Betty says.

What is startling is that Betty, now in her late seventies, is a relative newcomer to this painting business.

“It’s a meteoric rise – and very well deserved too,” according to Nici Cumpston, the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

An older Aboriginal woman in colourful clothes sits in front of a vast detailed canvas painting in black and white
The highly respected senior artist Betty Muffler with one of her paintings at Iwantja Arts, the art centre at Indulkana in the APY Lands.(Supplied: Iwantja Arts/Rhett Hammerton)

As recently as 2017, Betty was judged best emerging artist at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, with a painting that has since become characteristic in terms of her style and subject matter.

Much like other artists represent their dreaming (or tjukurpa) the senior Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara woman from the APY Lands in the far north of South Australia has dedicated much of her recent work to a single recurrent theme: ngangkari ngura, or healing country.

Across blackened or red ochre canvases she paints luminous, highly detailed images in white that seem to shimmer and vibrate.

From the microcosm of a patch of bush flowers to the bird’s eye view of country that maps culturally significant sites such as life-giving rock waterholes and ancestral walking tracks, this is country renewing itself.

An incredibly detailed painting, black background with white paint tracing out Aboriginal art lines and circles
This painting — Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country) — won the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. (Supplied: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory)

Betty’s vibrant paintings are often densely layered panoramic visions that map the topographical features and cultural geography of her country, from her birthplace at Yalunga east to the community of Indulkana, where she lives and works.

The restorative power of art

Just as she uses her hands as instruments to administer healing as a ngangkari, Betty’s dextrous skill as an artist can have a restorative effect on the viewer, according to Cumpston.

“That motion of moving across the work has actually got the power to heal, because, of course as a ngangkari, she has mara ala, she has open hands, her hands are taking that power from her body. And that power is being placed along that canvas.”

As artistic director of the flagship AGSA program Tarnanthi, Cumpston included Betty’s work in the 2020 focus exhibition Open Hands, dedicated to the work of senior women artists in communities such as Indulkana.

“All of that mark making is full of story. It’s full of the tjukurpa, it’s all of the elements that go with the practice of being a ngangkari — of being a healer — is played out across the surface of that work.

“It’s a really interesting, really beautiful soft vibration I feel.”

Betty’s iconography is at once abstract and figurative.

What appear to be flowers sit alongside linear, radial and bulbous organic forms which might describe ancestral pathways across country, encampments or rockholes.

An older Aboriginal woman in colourful clothes sits in front of a vast detailed canvas painting in black and white
Betty Muffler represents her country bursting with life and vibrating with tjukurpa, the traditional law.(Supplied: Iwantja Arts/Rhett Hammerton)

Betty also represents her own tjukurpa – that of the emu.

In trying to find a parallel to explain the complex and interconnected relationship between tjukurpa and the physical world, and how this is encoded in Betty’s paintings, Art Collector magazine’s Micheal Do uses one of the oldest forms of telecommunication known in the West as an analogy.

“[T]hese abstract symbols offer the possibility of the dots and dashes of Morse code: dots which morph into dashes, that coalesce into lines – eventually forming blades of grass that transform into mountains, converting into cumulus clouds.

“In this way, her landscape paintings are not simply representations of nature. Muffler paints her experience of it, rescaling the landscape into a cosmic dimension – charging the constellation of concentric circles, arms and lines with her world of experience.”

Betty’s countrywoman Sally Scales is the coordinator of regional programs for the APY Art Centre Collective which represents Iwantja Arts where Betty paints her extraordinary large canvases.

An emerging leader and practising artist herself, Scales takes exception with a singular reading of Betty’s work, one which prefers the anthropological over the aesthetic.

“I get frustrated when people want to know the deeper story, the deeper tjukurpa.

“Well — you do an art piece, tell me what it is, and then I’ll come and tell you that I need to know more.

“It’s quite intrusive.

“Aboriginal people have given enough information about themselves. I think we need to start appreciating great art … and seeing all the different facets in it, like we would a Ben Quilty piece.”

‘We need to heal this country’

The vast homelands of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara stretch north to Uluru and abut Maralinga, where the British tested their highly experimental arsenal of nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War.

Betty was born not far from a remote claypan known as Emu Field, so named by British nuclear physicist Sir William Penney on a lightning visit in 1952.

Penney was on a stop-over, en route to the Montebello Islands off Western Australia to observe the first detonations of nuclear weapons on Australian territory.

It was at Emu Field that the first nuclear tests on the Australian mainland were conducted on October 15, 1953 — when Betty Muffler was about nine years old.

“My sisters and I were living with our mother and father,” says Betty. “I was a big girl. I was hearing that this bomb was coming … My father was thinking about going back home to his place, and he went with my little sister and started travelling there.

“But my father went the wrong way, toward the bomb area – he was thinking ‘I’ll be going back to my place’ but he went the wrong way. My two aunties and my other families were always crying, they were so worried that my father had passed away at the bomb area.

“The bomb’s smoke [was] going everywhere. It killed people — made them sick, some passed away. The bomb smoke had gone into their lungs, into their breathing.

“I survived … but many of my family didn’t. It’s a terrible sad story. We need to heal this country”.

When stories emerged of a black mist and its effect on the Anangu encamped downwind of the first blast, it was 30 years later – and largely driven by the late Kunmunara Lester, a Yankunytjatjara man who was about 10 years old when the first bomb was detonated at Emu Field.

He and his family were living at Wallatinna, about 170 kilometres north-west of ground zero.

An older Aboriginal woman with grey hair, the artist Betty Muffler, stands in the bush with one arm raised to the sky
Betty’s practice also spans tjanpi (native grass) weaving.(Supplied: Betty Muffler/Iwantja Arts/Meg Hansen)

A Royal Commission into the British nuclear tests could not find incontrovertible evidence that the black mist observed over places such as Wallatinna caused the skin rashes, diarrhoea and vomiting reported by Anangu in the aftermath of the blast.

The almost generational silence imposed by grief, the cultural prohibitions on naming the dead and the forced relocation of Anangu to hub settlements favoured those who would deny that there had been any human fallout from the first tests at Emu Field (and the rest of the British nuclear testing program at Maralinga).

But the Royal Commission overseen by Justice Jim McClelland and his deputy, the late Worimi man Bill Jonas, prefaced their findings by saying that the entire area declared a prohibited zone was hardly unoccupied and that the country had long been traversed for “hunting and gathering, for temporary settlements, for caretakership and spiritual renewal”.

This aspect of Betty’s work, as a visual representation of country renewing itself after a man-made cataclysm, should not be underestimated — it drives the exuberant force in her paintings.

Hope and healing

For its September issue, Vogue Australia commissioned Betty to create an artwork that would tangibly represent ‘hope’ amid the chaos of the global pandemic.

An incredibly detailed painting, black background with white paint tracing out Aboriginal art lines and circles
Betty’s painting was the first original work of art to cover Vogue Australia in its 60-year history.(Supplied: Betty Muffler/Iwantja Arts/National Gallery of Australia)

As well as gracing the cover, this iteration of Ngangkari Ngura is now part of the national collection and was hung in the Know My Name exhibition, honouring the work of unacknowledged women artists, at the National Gallery of Australia.

Scales says the Vogue cover may be Betty’s attempt at a form of mass healing – reaching far beyond the white box of the gallery.

Like most remote Aboriginal communities, Indulkana was locked down when the virus began circulating, given the extremely high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 due to the burden of chronic disease and limited access to health care.

“That notion that ‘I’m sending this out to heal everyone, because I can’t get out there’. I think that’s what Betty was doing,” says Scales.

Alongside her art practise, Betty works with Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council and medical practitioners.(Supplied: National Gallery of Australia)

It could be said that through the medium of the paint, the brush and the canvas Betty is laying hands as she would as a ngangkari.

Sometimes, almost cheekily, she represents her hands in her artwork – although they are so deeply enmeshed in the interlacing network of pathways, rockholes and healing sites that only she (or niece Maringka Burton, with whom she collaborates) can see them.

Oh hey – Mara! Mara ngayuku uwa nyangatja! Ngangkari, Ngangkariku mara ngayuku warkangka. Ngaranyi mara kanyini ngayuku paintingangka ngaranyi.

Betty says: “Oh hey – a hand! This is my hand here, a ngangkari’s hand, my hand at work.

“There is the healing hand in my painting.”

By : Daniel Browning – ABC NEWS

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