During lockdown in early May 2020, Vogue Australia collaborated with the National Gallery to commission an Australian artist to be featured as part of the global Vogue Hope campaign. For the first time in history, all 26 editions of Vogue (with a global reach of over 50 million) united behind the theme of hope, with each producing a cover that reflects longing for a recovered future. For the Australian cover, artist Betty Muffler — an Anangu / Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara woman and spiritual healer — was selected and commissioned to produce a work to bring hope and healing from the heart of our Country. Kelli Cole and Aidan Hartshorn convey the story of her extraordinary gift and the collaboration.
In the blink of an eye the pandemic changed our world. We can feel it in our bones. We are anxious about the future. We have turned inwards, searching for the strength from within to get through; searching for hope. As Indigenous Australians we have dealt with many atrocities — from colonisation to now — and while we are resilient peoples, it takes incredible strength to overcome.
Betty Muffler, an Anangu Pitjantjatjara woman from remote South Australia, knows the power of finding hope through adversity. Her childhood memories are layered with sadness and grief. When the world went into lockdown, Muffler began painting, and healing. Healing herself, her people and her Country.
“Through my paintings you can see my Ngangkari work: watching over people and also looking after Country. My Country. This place is very important — we all need to look after each other and respect our home.”
Muffler, now in her 70s, is a survivor. She lost many members of her family in the aftermath of the 1950s British atomic tests carried out on Aboriginal Country at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia. She is a Ngangkari, a spiritual healer who has special abilities and a reputation throughout her community as one of the best Ngangkari in the Lands.
Muffler’s story begins on her Country in remote South Australia, 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, part of the Woomera site where a series of British nuclear tests were conducted in the desert from 1956 to 1963. Maralinga, the place, is a word that translates to thunder from the Iwaidja people from Garig/Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. The settlement was established by the British government from 1838 to 1849, with a plan for it to be a trade route for the East India Company through to Southeast Asia. But the weather was deemed too unpredictable as the wet season brought with it the maralinga (thunderous) monsoonal rains. The name Maralinga is also an eerie coincidence — the Iwaidja people were lucky that their Rainbow Serpents, spiritual beings, appear each year to bring on the monsoonal rains, which meant the settlement was unable to continue.
But not so lucky were the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) people who lived in the area further south. Muffler and her parents were living on their Country, Watarru, near the border of South Australia and the Northern Territory. They were totally unaware that their Ancestral Lands had been chosen as the site for the joint British and Australian government military testing facility, an area that covered 52,000 square kilometres, with a 260-square kilometre testing zone. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Robert Menzies had assured Parliament that “no conceivable injury to life, men or property could emerge from the tests”. Seven tests were conducted from 1956 to 1963 and the site was left contaminated with radiation. Muffler’s Homelands were afflicted by an ominous “black mist” that rolled across the land, leaving in its path a film of black scum that leached into the tjukula tjuta (rock holes) and waterways. The tests caused displacement, injury and death of her family and people. The impact of radiation was so great the Country’s sickness remains to this day.
Along with her surviving sisters and aunties, Muffler relocated to the Ernabella Presbyterian Mission at Pukatja (Ernabella) situated in the Musgrave Ranges on Pitjantjatjara Country. She later moved to the nearby community of Indulkana, where she still lives and paints at the Iwantja Arts centre — a dynamic Aboriginal-owned art centre on the APY Lands in South Australia. Iwantja Arts is a professional artmaking studio that supports the careers of more than 30 artists, including high-profile artists such as Vincent Namatjira, Peter Mungkuri and Kaylene Whiskey.
Muffler’s robust artistic practice is primarily painting and drawing, but she is also an accomplished weaver, creating amazing woven baskets and other sculptural forms supported by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Alongside maintaining a rigorous artistic practice, Muffler is a director for Iwantja Arts and a cultural advisor to the APY Collective — a collective of 10 Indigenous-owned and governed enterprises working with a united vision on large-scale ambitious artistic projects to create opportunities and increased capacity for artists and their families.
Communities in the APY Lands have had restricted entry since COVID-19 arrived in Australia in February 2020, and Anangu people were directed not to practise inma (cultural song and dance), due to social distancing rules.
Because of Muffler’s renowned reputation, she has been in high demand to heal others during the pandemic which has caused anxiety in the communities. Ngangkari are usually chosen at birth by Elders of the community and they possess the power to remove pain and bad energy from people who have succumbed to sickness. Ngangkari wisdom has been passed on to Muffler through the paternal line. Her aunties have been an undeniable source of spiritual and cultural knowledge.
Muffler’s powers are so strong that she frequently leaves her Country to attend hospitals and clinics to help and heal Anangu family and friends, more so in recent months. While modern medicine assists to heal the physical body, Muffler’s energy also has the power to heal the spirit.
As a Ngangkari, she does not always need to physically travel to be able to heal. While in transient sleep the spirit of the Ngangkari assists in the action of healing others. “I am a Ngangkari,” explains Muffler. “I’ve got an eagle’s spirit so I can stay at home here and in my sleep I send my eagle spirit across the desert to look for sick people, then I land next to them and make them better. Ngangkari’s can see right through people to what sickness is inside, then they can heal them straight away.” Muffler’s paintings have become an extension of her ability as well as translations of her Tjukurpa (dreaming stories). Her works offer an insight to the connectedness she and her people have with what non-Indigenous people term ‘the Dreaming’, the space in which her spirit flies in search of the sick. Although sometimes explained as a place of ethereal spirituality, for Indigenous people the connection of the Tjukurpa runs much deeper, it is an incredibly complex space which Indigenous people share and occupy with their ancestors, creation beings and other Indigenous Australians across the country. A simpler explanation of the Tjukurpa is that of a symbolic doorway that remains open and creates a fluid energy between, and around, Indigenous peoples. It is a space where time collapses and the Western concept of past, present and future combine in presenting the idea that space, time and people are woven across one another rather than the suggested lineal form of the three. For Muffler, her connection to the Tjukurpa becomes a spiritual awakening and extension she translates across the canvas.
“I am a Ngangkari. “I’ve got an eagle’s spirit so I can stay at home here and in my sleep I send my eagle spirit across the desert to look for sick people, then I land next to them and make them better. Ngangkari’s can see right through people to what sickness is inside, then they can heal them straight away.”
Muffler’s paintings are a depiction of her Country, which is a direct connection to her songlines, a shared story path that has been mapped by her ancestors, her marali (journeys) that her spirit travels on through her Tjukurpa.
“Paluru walaruru, Tjukurpa paluru nyinanyi nyinanyi paluru … ngayuku mama ka ngayulu kuwari nyinanyi-tu … paluru iniwai ngayula pakani. Paluru nyinanyi in the tree, punungka, ka ngayula mapan wiyaringkula paluru ngayula ananyi tjungu … uwa ngangkari … “uwa ankula kurunypa mantjila … munu ngalyakati”. Ngayulu patara kulini … paluru wiruringu.”
“The eagle is there, he created that place in the Tjukurpa, so that is my fathers, so now I am the same. His spirit is within me and it can fly off with ease, accompanying me in my Ngangkari work. [In this painting] he is sitting in a tree nearby, watching. When I have finished assessing the patient, I say to the Ngangkari eagle with me: ‘Yes, go and get that [sick person’s] spirit and bring it back.’ I wait, knowing that when the sick person gets their spirit back they get well.”
Just like the way of a Ngangkari, Muffler’s paintings are imbued with power and sing as they vibrate with energy. The execution is incredibly detailed and layered with iconography. To the trained eye they are a depiction of connection that revolves around her Anangu people, their energy, Muffler’s spirit, the energy she draws upon from her Country and how all these concepts come together in the sacred space of the
Tjukurpa. Muffler’s canvases become a performative space while visually documenting the spiritual experience of a Ngangkari healer and their marali. The energy in the painting comes from the visual marali and activation of her tjulpu eagle spirit, while invoking the pulsating energies of the people that Muffler helps in healing, as well as the energy from the country’s big rains and healing of the waters.
“Kapi pulkaringkupai puyinangka panya — hey kapi pulka palatja! Nyanganyi — kapi pulka ngalya puyini: Ooow! Ka Ngangkari wangkanyi kapi palunya wankanyi ‘purkarari tjukaru ngalya puyila!’ uwa Ngangkari.”
“The waterholes fill when it rains. You know how you feel when you see rain: ‘Hey, that looks like big rain!’ You see this big rain coming towards you — and go: ‘Ooow!’ Well, the Ngangkari is talking with it, the rain clouds, essentially saying: ‘Make sure you come straight here, rain, in this direction!’ Yes, it is also part of being Ngangkari.”
Finding her painting would grace the cover of Vogue was a big surprise for Muffler. “I’m so happy for my painting to be on the cover of Vogue Australia!” she says. “I’ve been working for a very a long time as a Ngangkari and an artist, and I can’t believe my artwork is going to be on the magazine. Through my paintings you can see my Ngangkari work: watching over people and also looking after Country. My Country. This place is very important — we all need to look after each other and respect our home.”
Betty Muffler’s painting, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country), was commissioned by Vogue Australia and gifted to the National Gallery of Australia by Vogue Australia.
Kelli Cole, a Warumungu/Luritja woman, is Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Aidan Hartshorn, a Walgalu man of the Gurmal Nation, is the Wesfarmers Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
By Edwina McCann, Editor-in-Chief, Vogue Australia
Vogue Australia’s September 2020 cover looks and feels like no other. For the first time in our 60-year history, we are publishing fine art on our cover. More than just fine art, it is Indigenous art by Betty Muffler, aptly titled Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country). We worked closely with the National Gallery to commission Betty, an Anangu/Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara woman and spiritual healer, because we wanted an image that represented hope.
This project began in April, when all editors of Vogue met virtually to discuss how we might offer our readers a message of optimism in this trying year. Therefore, ‘hope’ is the word that appears on each of Vogue’s 26 September issues published around the world in 2020.
For Vogue Australia, looking to illustrate this word led us to the work of Betty. When the world went into lockdown, Betty painted to heal herself, her people, and her Country. I was so incredibly moved when I saw Betty’s painting for the first time, nothing could be more significant for our September issue. What moved me most was the placement of the O in the Vogue masthead. Historically, the O is where we list the country for each global edition, so not only does it look amazing but it is so meaningful for Betty’s voice and vision to take over that space.
We are very grateful to Betty, and the Iwantja Arts Centre team, for believing Vogue is a deserving home for her work, and message. We were thrilled to work with the National Gallery team to commission Betty’s work of art, which will be included in the international Hope portfolio to be published in every Vogue region. Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country) is a proposed gift to the Gallery, and therefore to all Australians. It is my wish that now more Australians will know Betty’s name and appreciate her gifts, talent and story.
This interview was first published in the Spring 2020 edition of Artonview. Artonview is the National Gallery’s Member’s magazine. Become a member nga.gov.au/members