A renowned ngangkari (traditional doctor)
Betty Muffler was born near Watarru in South Australia and now lives and works in Indulkana in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. She is a highly respected senior woman and artist at Iwantja Arts, with her practice spans painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. Muffler is also a renowned ngangkari (traditional doctor), a practice that has been handed down through her father’s family and taught to her by her aunties. Alongside her rigorous art practice, she works extensively with Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council and other medical practitioners to support Aṉangu to good health and through times of crisis.
Muffler grew up at the Ernabella Mission in Pukatja in the APY Lands, following the displacement and death of family members in the aftermath of the British nuclear testing at Maralinga and Emu Field in the middle of last century. Witnessing the devastation of country and surviving this experience motivates her recurring depiction of healing sites, and the intensity of her connection to these places is the subject of her paintings entitled Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country).
When the world went into lockdown due to COVID-19 in early 2020, artist Betty Muffler painted to heal herself, her people and her Country. What things do you do to relax or calm down when you are feeling anxious or stressed?
Muffler is part of the Uti Kulintjaku Project led by the NPY Women’s Council. Uti Kulintjaku means ‘to think and understand clearly’ in Pitjantjatjara. This project has included the creation of resources such as the ‘Words for Feelings’ posters and cards, which are an ideal addition to any classroom or school staffroom.
As well as being on the cover of Vogue Australia’s September 2020 ‘Hope’ issue, Betty Muffler also recorded a meditation for the mindfulness app‘Smiling Mind’, which you may like to try with your class.
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.
Muffler has developed her skills as a renowned ngangkari (traditional doctor) through her family. What things have been handed down to you from your family members?
Celia Dottore introduces the work of Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton
Muffler has witnessed the devastation of Country, including the British nuclear testing at Maralinga and Emu Field. Surviving this experience motivates her depiction of healing sites, and the intensity of her connection to these places can be seen in her paintings titled Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country). Investigate other artists who have responded to the British nuclear testing that occurred in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. How do their responses vary or what similarities do they share? How have they communicated the impact the testing had on Country, people, community and culture?
Discuss the following statement ‘Works of art are a vital resource in understanding our history’. Use works of art to support your argument.
Tip: Look at the Kulata Tjuta project by APY artists, Thunder Raining Poison by Yhonnie Scarce and Destruction I by Kunmanara Queama and Hilda Moodoo.
Betty Muffler has collaborated with Maringka Burton, a highly regarded ngangkari and respected senior artist who also works across drawing, painting and sculpture. The first works that they have made together are included in Open Hands. As Maringka Burton says, ‘our paintings were done from our shared experience of working together as ngangkari’.
Pair up with another person in your class and have each person select a word at random out of a hat. Below is a list of words to get you started:
In pairs, create a long collaborative painting that takes inspiration from the words you have been given. How will you work together to create a piece that is cohesive? Consider your choice of colour as well as the size of your brush or palette knife.
Write the names of a selection of different tools on pieces of paper and place them into a hat. For example, different sized brushes, toothpicks, palette knife, string, cardboard, sponges – make sure to include tools that aren’t traditional painting equipment. Select a tool from the hat. Using your tool, create a new collaborative piece with your partner.
Muffler and Burton use white paint on large sheets of paper that have a black ground. Experiment with different combinations of materials – for example, white chalk on black or coloured paper, or black charcoal on white or light-coloured paper. Using these materials, create one continuous line drawing that depicts the place where you live.
Muffler’s work depicts Tjukurpa (ancestral creation story) and healing sites, places she has a connection to. What place do you have a strong connection to? Perhaps this is a place you visit to recharge your batteries and relax with family and friends, or maybe it is where you currently live or where your family are from. Create a work of art that captures the essence of this place. Look at maps of this place and identify landmarks that could be used as a starting point for your work of art.
Muffler describes one of her paintings:
‘This one, it is all about water, the water flowing down. This is about the cycle of water here when it rains. It is not about a particular place but the life of the landscape as a whole. Here is the rain coming down, and you know how when it rains the water swirls around and around, flowing down into the rockholes or alternatively sinking into the sand of creek beds. Then digging and the excitement of seeing it there – “hey, water is coming up” – as you dig down at the soakage.
‘There is a lot of water when it rains. You know when you see these big storms coming towards you and go “Ooow! Hey that’s a big big rain!” Well, the ngangkariis talking with it, the big rain, essentially saying “make sure you come straight over here, rain!” Yes, it is also part of being a ngangkari.
‘This water flows across the land, going into the waterholes, but it doesn’t stay for long. Where is it going now? It goes into the ground, at soakages, that’s where it goes – inside. It is not on the surface, above ground. Yes, it is going straight in from above. By digging down into the ground, you see “the water is right here!” and call out “ooow, there is water here!” I paint about this digging at soakages and show the four openings where the water is flowing into the earth after rain.’
Investigate the cycle of water when it rains where you live. Create a work of art that celebrates a natural water system near you.
Movements with Minimal Marks
Both Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton talk about the native animals, including eagles, emus and caterpillars, that feature in their Tjukurpa, which become sources of inspiration for some of their works.
Make a list of animals found in your local area. Select your favourite one. Research ‘a day in the life’ of that animal. Why is this animal important to the ecosystem where you live? What do they eat and how do they move? What is their signature movement?
Think carefully about the way your animal moves. Break down their movements or actions into simple lines.
Tip: Use your body re-enact the action
Create a drawing using only 5 lines that captures the movement of your animal.
Tip: Change the size and pressure of your marks to emphasis certain movements and create depth.
Illustrations by Thomas Readett, Tarnanthi Education Officer