Uluru and Maruku Arts

Our tour officially began as we gathered together at Uluru and it seems only appropriate to have begun our journeys from the living heart of Australia. On our first evening we went out for the traditional sunset viewing.

Uluru at sunset.

The next morning we began with a walk to the Mutitjulu waterhole, near the place where Kuniya the carpet snake and Liru the poisonous snake met in battle.

One of the many faces of uluru reflected in the waters of Mutitjulu.
Liru and Kuniya, the ancestral snakes, can be seen in these marks on the rock face above Mutitjulu waterhole.

Around the other face of the site, we took off on the Mala walk, which leads from the carpark down to Kantju waterhole, offering numerous caves filled with rock art along the way. One of the saddest sites we saw was a cave that has been blocked off because tourists have stained the art by throwing tanning oil against its walls. 

The start of the Mala Walk at Uluru.

Our guide on this part of the journey was Mark Kulitja, a Pitjantjatjara elder who works for Anangu Tours, the indigenous owned company that helps to explain the significance of Uluru to its visitors. Working through a genial interpreter named Tim, Mark told us the major story from this side of Uluru. The mala, or kangaroo, men traveled to Uluru for ceremonial purposes, and were shortly joined by the mulga seed men. The mulga seed men invited the mala men to join them at their camp, but the mala men refused, having already begun their ceremonies. Offended, the mulga seed men went back to their country in the west, and sent out a shape-changer, Kupan, to extract vengeance for the slight. Kupan approached stealthily, appearing now as a flower, now as the branch of a tree or a puddle of water. Finally he reached the base of Uluru, and rampaged through the camps along what is now the Mala Walk, first through the boy’s camp, then the men’s, and finally the women’s. The mala people fled before him, heading south. There they joined forces with the emu men to dig and disguise a deep hole in the ground. When Kupan came through, he fell into the hole. The mala and emu men surrounded the pit and threw their spears into it, killing Kupan. Today a vast depression in country south of Uluru stands ringed by trees (the mala and emu men) with a large boulder that represents the body of Kupan lying at the bottom of it.

Mark Kulitja, our Pitjantjatjara guide from Anangu Tours, at the camp where the mala men instructed their sons.

Uluru was a meeting place for people from all around the region, and the ancestors whose stories are told on its face represent the various linguistic groups who jostled in its presence: Kuniya the Yankunytjatjarra; Liru the Ngaanyatjarra; Mala the Warlpiri, and Mulga Seed the Pitjantjatjara.

Today, Maruku Arts represents some 25 communities from around Uluru and offers an outlet for the art and craft produced by them. Originally, the emphasis was on punu, small, carved wooden animals, decorated by heating pokers in campfires and charring designs onto the body of the beasts. Nowadays there are still plenty of punu being made and sold through Maruku Arts, but the artistic production has broadened and diversified greatly. Acrylic paintings are on offer; recently people have been experimenting with a new format in which designs are burnt into flat wooden boards. These are then painted to enhance the designs created with the poker. A variety of other sculptural forms are flourishing as well.

The traditional punu carvings have become much more elaborate at artful as these snakes by Billy Cooley demonstrate. In the background, woomeras and coolamons represent the older styles of production, now sharing space in the galleries with acrylic paintings.
An example of the whimsical sculpture being marketed by Maruku Arts.

Just before we left Maruku, we had the most unexpected and thoroughly delightful encounter of the day. Peter Fannin, the botanist who succeeded Geoffrey Bardon in managing the affairs of the nascent Papunya Tula Artists company in 1973, was at home in the demountable next door to the Maruku warehouse. When Margo and I went knocking, he cheerfully welcomed us, and brought out photographs of his collection of early Papunya work to share. (He has donated the boards to the National Gallery of Australia.) His delight in the history of the early days of the the renaissance of culture out of Papunya seemed undimmed nearly thirty-five years later as he proudly shared his photographic collection with us.

Peter Fannin shares photos and memories of early days at Papunya with Khadija and Kerry.

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