There has been the misguided tendency to equate the work of Aboriginal Australian Desert painters with a revival in Modernist abstract painting. While visually and materially, Central and Western Desert painting has come to be associated with large canvases and the inherent qualities of paint, to chart a path between American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock or English Op artist Bridget Riley to Central and Western Desert painting is to mistake a contour line on an Ordnance Survey Map for a path.
For painter Betty Muffler – who works from Iwantja Arts, an Art Centre in the Indulkana Community on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in remote-west South Australia – the visual and material outcomes of her paintings are happenstance to the spiritual and historical depictions in her paintings. As with other Western Desert painters, Muffler draws upon the Dreaming. The Anangu people, to which Muffler belongs, understand the Dreaming, or Tjukurpa, as a self-aware life force that exceeds space, time and the boundaries between life and death. While the Tjukurpa has been thought of as a creation story, it is a Western fiction that the Dreaming only exists to explain the way in which spiritual beings created humans and the world we inhabit. Rather as Muffler notes, it is a complex generative force that is living, sacred and has an intelligence that is communicated through humans and non-humans.
It is this connection that imbues Muffler’s painting with a spiritual power, as if whole worlds are ready to burst forth from her canvas. She skillfully composes together the language of abstract pictographs and surface designs, so that they form a cohesive narrative.
For knowledgeable elders like Muffler, these 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.
As you experience her monochromatic canvases, you realise that she has created the visual equivalent of standing by a speaker drowning out all the frequency around you. This feeling and energy can be in part explained by her work as a ngangkari or cultural healer. Muffler is part of a movement of women forging a renaissance of cultural healing through the NPY Women’s Council in Alice Springs.
The ngangkari work to heal the patient’s spirit, or karanpa, by using a psychic medicinal tool called mapanpa, which rids the body of mamu (bad spirits). In its void the karanpa returns to the body, strengthening the spirit. Most critically, these healing practices take place in ceremonies which connect people back into their communities and to the stories of the Dreaming.
Muffler informs me that her own ngangkari experience began during her childhood living on Ernabella mission in South Australia. Muffler was raised by missionaries after many of her family members perished as a result of the British nuclear tests at Maralinga, Adelaide from 1956 to 1963.
“When I was younger, I was asleep but I had the feeling that someone was nearby. It was a spirit; it was there watching me and then it disappeared. It came back again and it was really big and frightening, right there next to me! A ngangkari told me ‘you’ve got a sickness inside’ and then they healed me. That’s the kind of work I do too, I can find the bad spirits inside someone and I can heal them, make them strong and healthy again.”
While Muffler situates her painting as part of these continuous traditions, she is committed to a radical revitalisation of the ongoing power of these traditions in her painting. This can be seen in her monochromatic palette, a stylistic culmination after years of practice, of carefully and committedly honing her stunning visual aesthetic. “I’ve been using just one colour for four or five years now, taking away the colours and just having white drawing – I’m using my drawing to show movement and feeling, how it feels to be ngangkari.”
She elaborates by explaining that she paints “good energy and the Country that is good: places that are good, safe, nourishing and healing. 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 affirms the cultural understanding that Indigenous women experience their sense of self as an extension of the earth, which also encompasses the social and emotional wellbeing of Country and connection to the Dreaming. It is this powerful concept that formed the basis of her recent winning entry of the 2017 Telstra Emerging Artist Award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAAs).
In her forthcoming three-person exhibition at RAFT Artspace in Alice Springs, Muffler’s work is presented alongside two other ngangkari healers and painters, one of whom is her sister. The exhibition – which seeks to locate and explain ngangkari painting practice – is a testament to the power of community and familial ties in healing the deep historical intergenerational cumulative trauma of colonisation. As Muffler tells me, it is the shared stories, skills and experiences of her wide network of mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters and grandmothers that forms the bloodline of her artistic practice and provides her with the support and confidence to paint, heal and live in the way she does. “I’m a strong kungka [woman],” she says. “I survived the bombings at Maralinga. My painting shows many of the good places in my Country. It makes me happy to know that I’m helping people to feel good – I know it’s a really important job.”
This article was published in Art Collector issue 90, Oct-Dec 2019.