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Clive Scollay, Maruku Arts, Punu work: history, tradition and innovation, interview

Clive Scollay is General Manager of Maruku Arts at Uluru. Established in 1984, Maruku has been in business for some 27 years. Scollay discusses the challenges for 800 members of the organisation in creating and selling craft works in wood, known as punu as part of an Indigenous art market dominated by acrylic paintings. Opportunities in the local domestic market include sales of new forms of carving to up-market interiors in hospitality and expanding the punu story into children's books.

Kathryn Wells

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Interview Clive Scollay, Maruku Arts Punu woodwork: tradition, history and innovation


Maruku Arts is a craft company, owned and controlled by Anangu (Aboriginal people from the south east and west of Central Australia).  Maruku's warehouse is situated  at Mutitjulu community via Uluru.  The Maruku retail outlet, at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre at the base of Uluru, specialises in Aboriginal wood carving, punu, and design, walka, done on carved pieces or flat boards.  The evolution and establishment of Maruku involved the vision, dedication and effort of many people. Maruku is the trading arm of the Anangu Uwankaraku Punu Aboriginal Corporation set up in 1984, which literally means ‘wood belonging to Anangu’.

The eighteen Aboriginal communities serviced by Maruku extend as far west to Warburton, north to Warrakurna, Karrku and Tjukurla in Western Australia (part of the Tjulyuru cutltural centre in the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, east to the Finke River in the Northern Territory and south to Mimili, Indulkana and Fregon in South Australia as well as cluster of communities across both states and the territory closer to Uluru.   There are approximately 800 Anangu members that make up the artists’ co-operative that is Maruku.

Anangu have been producing their traditional weapons and utensils made from wood for tens of thousands of years. The technique of carving animals and incising them with burnt wire decoration, known as 'poker work' is much more recent. Anangu working as stockmen and drovers as well as in other roles on stations would have known the effect of red hot wire as a decorative technique. This was adapted by Anangu to the craft of woodwork. The missions stimulated animal carving and other woodcrafts, particularly at Ernabella and Fregon, and by the 1950s the decorated carving tradition was well known in many communities. Amata wood work and rugs from Ernabella were exhibited at the newly established Argyle Crafts Centre in Sydney by Peter Brokensha in the early 1970s.

Clive Scollay worked in Amata as the Community Advisor in 1981-82, and accompanied the early Amata selling trips of craft at Uluru, lending tarpaulins, before the official launch of Maruku in 1984.  At that time, Anangu craftspeople were urgently seeking support and encouragement for the maintenance of their traditional skills, some guarantee of fair prices and a reliable purchasing and selling centre for their work. Scollay returned as the General Manager of Maruku Arts in 2006. 

Craft Australia interviewed Clive Scollay in Sydney following a month-long exhibition of Maraku punu woodwork at the Bondi Pavilion, Sydney.

CA: Can you describe some of the background story to the establishment of Maruku Arts as a unique Indigenous arts centre, largely devoted to woodwork, known as punu?

Clive Scollay:In 1980-81, Anangu urgently wanted support for their skills through making craft, some guarantee of fair prices and a reliable purchasing and selling centre for their work. The Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) was keen to support crafts and arts activities on some of the communities.  Geoff Bardon had just set up the Papunya Tula Company based on men’s painting on boards.  Walter Pukutiwara, a skilled craftsman from Amata, was the Ptijantjatara representative on the AAB and, he lobbied and pushed for funds for Amata. As as result the Amata Craft Centre was established in February 1981.

In 1981-82, I was Community Advisor at Amata, South Australia and my mate, Peter Yates, was art and craft advisor. Anangu were already producing carved wooden works throughout the region, but outlets for this beautiful product were hard to find. Word was out that a new tourist facility was going to be developed at the Rock, as plans for Yulara were on the drawing board. It seemed logical to tangle with the tourist trade by tapping into the local tourist market.when the Amata Craft Centre needed to sell their work.

Together with a group of men and women from Amata, Peter Yates and his partner Pat D'Aranjo, travelled to Uluru and set up a tent at the base of the Rock. The journey from Amata to Uluru with a Toyota packed with craftworks and forty people crammed into eight cars is described by Pat D'Aranjo in Jennifer Isaac's book, Desert Crafts. People worked from sunrise to sunset. During the two weeks at Uluru, Amata Craft Centre sold more craft at Uluru than they had in the whole of that financial year.

Peter had considerable experience in working with communities and presenting the work of artists for sale. Peter had previously worked as an art advisor at Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land and at Mimi Arts and Crafts in Katherine. Setting up the tent at Uluru to sell punu was the seed of an idea about setting up a community craft centre.  The success of the Amata artists in coming to the Rock and selling their work and performing inma, or community ceremony, laid a solid foundation for what was to follow.

This camp at Uluru was the genesis of Shane Howard’s song Solid Rock, when he was with the Goanna Band. Shane writes about the inspiration for his song in his new book of the same name, published by One Day Hill, 2010. Shane writes about arriving at Uluru, and walking around the base of the rock to find an inma going on. The inma was celebrating the putting up of the tent with the idea that people could sell their work for fair prices.  The song about the displacement of the Anangu has become an anthem about Aboriginal social history. 

Around 1982, the local craftspeople at Amata began talking seriously about helping fellow producers in the region and applied for monies to have discussions. In early 1983 Walter Pukutiwara, and his wife Topsy Tjulyata, Tjamiwa and his wife Pulya Taylor, accompanied by Peter Yates and Pat D'Arango, conducted as series of consultations in the Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara lands to discuss that the idea of a ‘regional’ craft centre at Uluru. It was out of these discussions that the idea of a Maruku first emerged whereby the sales of crafts would be centred at Uluru. Uluru was both an important dreaming place for all Anangu as well to non-Aboriginal people who were interested in Aboriginal culture as well as potential buyers of craft. Anangu set the ground rules which were that there was an Aboriginal executive, and a retail outlet in a major tourist destination with a strong focus on sales. The main job of Maruku was to set up a market for the work and a strong company.

Peter Yates and Pat D'Arango stayed and set up the organisation with key artists such as Walter Pukutiwara, Topsy Tjulyata, Pulya Taylor and others. Peter Yates developed a technique for oiling the wood at Maruku which saved a lot of time as well as preserving the wood. A large dunking trough was constructed from four petrol drums cut in half, welded together and tilted on a stand. The wooden objects were dipped into a recipe of turpentine and linseed oil which killed any borers and allowed the wood to better absorb the oil. Conservation work was done by Nui Minyintirri who had lived at Uluru since the 1950s. From a store of raw materials such as: kangaroo sinew, kiti (spinfex gum), quartz flints, bracing sticks, spear barbs, hair string, emu feathers, ochre and other essentials, Minyintirri repaired broken barbs and fixed flints that had been dislodged, as well as other conservation tasks.

The Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) decided to support Maruku because it thought there was strength in the idea of carved wooden objects.  The AAB were not so supportive of painting in this region to begin with despite the early emergence of Papunya Tula artists in the early development of their work on boards and later canvas. However, Nugget Coombs’ vision for the AAB, and the money that came from that to support Aboriginal arts and crafts, was a good starting point.  The Aboriginal Development Commission also assisted financially in the establishment of Maruku.

In 1984, Clyde Holding, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, officially launched Maruku Arts, by opening the Warehouse at Mutitjulu. He also launched the book: Growing up the country - the Pitjantjatjara struggle for their land by Philip Toyne and Dan Vachon.  It was an extraordinary event. It began with a powerful traditional inma sung by dozens of men and women, providing the beat for a group of senior women looking as if they had appeared out of the rock, thrusting their big wooden sticks (wana) as if digging into the future, as they danced their way into the warehouse. Inside the warehouse, mostly empty of work, was filled with artists and many of the key men climbed onto the empty shelves, amongst the dancing shields and big piti bowls, shouting and singing in language to attract the attention of the Minister and to celebrate the opening of their own space for selling woodwork. 

In 1985, when the deeds to Uluru and Kata Tjuta were handed back to Anangu people, Maruku Arts was well on the way to becoming a strong regional body. Since then, Maruku has tried hard not to over-diversify, and has maintained a strong position in the marketplace for Aboriginal wood carvings.  Maruku reached a million dollar turn-over in 1998 from both their wholesale and retail operations. Running Maruku’s retail operation, as part of a major tourist operation at the Cultural Centre in Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, means Maruku has to operate seven days a week. Anangu are involved with working at the Cultural Centre at different times.

CA: What are some of the issues that Maruku faces as a woodwork sales organisation?

Clive Scollay: One of the main issues is the extraordinary boom in Aboriginal paintings for Pitjintjatjara people.  The demand for quality and ever more quantities of acrylic Aboriginal paintings has seen a slip in the traditional skills and in the output of woodworked objects. Painting is relatively less tiring and the returns appear to be greater, once an artist has made a name for themselves. Many of the best punu makers are now painters – especially the senior men – which means the making of high quality mens’ artifacts has dropped off somewhat. However, the production of smaller wooden carvings - goannas, birds, snakes, and the many other desert animals, music sticks, bowls and the like continues with the same high quality.

Punu work is hard work. Most items are made made from hard wood – mostly mulga or river redgum – and are created in a time-tried way. Collecting the punu means sourcing red gum roots way out bush, identifying the right tree, digging it out, carrying it back to camp, cutting it out with an axe, then digging it out by hand before carving it. It is in this way that people make carved shields, spear throwers, bowls, carved animals, clubs and boomerangs.  To incise the design, you burn it with a hot poker in a camp fire. 

There is one strong distinction between the production of paintings on canvas and punu making. Most painting work is produced in an art centre – mostly in a building and often at a table whereas punu is usually produced away from the built environment. Punu production is also much more of a social activity. Making punu means people often go together to gather the wood and then sit around a fire out bush or outside their houses to carve and decorate the wood with pokerwork.

There is also a cultural issue.  When carving and incising the designs on the wood, a group of older artists are often sitting around and singing the stories of the punu as they carve and draw.  A group of younger people are always sitting around watching and listening.  This doesn’t often happen with paintings made in art centres. Not making punu is about a loss of cultural tradition, skills and stories.

Punu is important. Punu is part of the expression of the living culture of Anangu people that also sustains the culture of families, song and country and the skills that come with all of that. This is not to say that painting is wrong, it’s just another facet of a rich culture with wonderful stories and designs to share. Indeed, Maruku encourages all art production and has always worked in a limited way with painters as well as punu makers. Indeed, Maruku promotes and sells works on canvas fro most art centres in its retail outlet in the Cultural centre at Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park.

There have also been changes in the two markets within which we operate – the tourist market and the art market. A dramatic drop in overseas tourism numbers at Uluru since the global financial crisis has impacted heavily on our bottom line. Restrictions for carry-on baggage by the cheaper airlines has also impacted on punu sales, as, of course, our product is weight-based. In the last few years, this has left the Maruku woodwork market highly dependent upon domestic sales. The high end is still OK but there appears to be a general downturn in the medium end of the Aboriginal art market.    

Achieving domestic sales growth is difficult in a retail conservative climate.  Art and craft are low on people’s priority list for expenditure.

Exhibitions and sales in the capital cities are affected by this drop in market demand.  This has affected a number of galleries who have specialised in Aboriginal art and wood-based craft.  At least four galleries who deal with Maruku Arts have recently closed:

  • The Hogarth Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, one of the longest running private galleries in Australia, which opened in 1972 and specialised in Aboriginal art since the 1980s, has now closed. 
  • Birrung Gallery in William Street, Sydney closed its doors in December 2010. The closure was despite more than 900 artists having sold through their gallery, with more than $2.3 million having been returned to artists.  Birrung stopped buying in February 2010 which was difficult for the artists whose works were sold through the gallery. 
  • Alison Kelly Gallery in Melbourne, established in 2000, considered one of the foremost contemporary Indigenous art galleries, who had recently relocated to Albert Street, Richmond, closed its doors in December 2010.
  • Gallery Gondwana in Alice Springs, established in 1990, which has worked closely with art centres across Australia and formed long-standing relationships, has no current or future exhibitions.  This has happened as there is too much competition from cheaper but less reputable galleries around Alice Springs.

An additional challenge in promoting authentic hand-made Aboriginal art pieces, especially wooden objects has to do with the competition.  There is a lot of work in airport departure lounges and so-called Aboriginal art and Craft shops with a label that says ‘Authentic Aboriginal Art’ on it which, in reality, has been mass-produced sometimes outside Australia. 

Buyers believe they are doing the right thing and supporting Aboriginal enterprise but are not looking carefully about where it has come from and are unaware of what they are looking for in determining whether an art work is authentic.  There are some very clever private entrepreneurs masquerading as traders in authentic Aboriginal art and culture.  Sometimes their intentions aren’t even bad; they want desperately to represent Aboriginal culture and yet, through their actions in copying and reproducing art in a false manner, they are killing the culture that produces it in the first place.

CA: How does Maruku Arts deal with these cultural and market issues of loss of exhibition and gallery outlets?

Clive Scollay: Maruku has been developing new relationships for its exhibition and gallery outlets and new ways of presenting work.  For the past five years we have been working collaboratively with a senior girls school in Sydney called Monte Sant Angelo College. The College has had Indigenous studies deeply embedded in their program for the some fifteen years and the students are very sensitive to Anangu issues. They have established a relationship with Nyangatjatjara Secondary College at Uluru and with Maruku Arts.

A group of students visits us each year and the girls provide their services in our warehouse helping to count stock, dipping punu, preparing boards and so on and learning how hard it is to do the burnt pokerwork. They also work in our retail outlet, while some other girls work in the Mutitjulu Childcare. In exchange, we hold an exhibition each year at the College with several artists in attendance who often perform inma and contribute in other ways to College life while  the students and staff help us layout the works, sit on the door and encourage their parents to come and buy. It’s a two-way learning process.

Strategic partnerships are always useful. In 2009, Maruku was selected to work with Object Galley, the Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney, who developed an exhibition called Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculpture.  This was pretty unique as it showed the richness and breadth of contemporary Indigenous sculpture. It included both well-known and emerging artists, who each produced sculptural works depicting a variety of animals.

Object developed Menagerie in collaboration with the Australian Museum in order to explore new ways to engage with a broad audience and to promote culture.  The exhibition was possible through government funding and private support.  Arts NSW supported the Indigenous Curator position at Object.  Brian Parkes, now at the Jam Factory in Adelaide was part of organising this.

Menagerie is now on a national tour, going to Tasmania, Perth and Alice Springs. It will be exciting to have it on at the Araluen Centre in Alice Springs.  The Museum estimates that by the end of the tour the sculptures will have been seen by around 200,000 people.

The Australian Museum Foundation has launched a campaign to raise $300,000 to purchase the entire Menagerie collection. Two of Maruku Arts’ main artists, Billy and Lulu Cooley had works included. They are very powerful works.  There is a living beauty in Billy Cooley’s snakes that makes them very arresting and powerful pieces.

We have also expanded into new display opportunities.  In January 2011, Maruku was promoting its work through an exhibition at Bondi Pavilion, Sydney. Our rationale was: if the tourist aren’t coming to us, lets go to the tourists. We had two artists present and ran school holiday workshops which were well received. We were assisted enormously in laying out the exhibition, sitting the door and working with young children by the staff and students of Monte Sant Angelo College. This whole program worked well and we would look to build on this experience.

CA: How does Maruku Arts deal with the competition from acrylic paintings and new media?

Clive Scollay: The main development or innovation is what we call Walka boards.  Walka is the Pitjantjatara word used for the design that is incised on the wood carvings.  These days Maruku artists are also making walka on wooden boards.  The boards come as a set size but they can be constructed as a multiple set for large spaces.  It can be attractive in the corporate market.  Interestingly, they were used at Yulara Resort as part of the original decor in the Kuniya Room -their upmarket restaurant.  Large burnt walka boards were used as a backdrop for the restaurant along with Indigenous works in glass.

We are also interested in working with architects, especially landscape architects who may find giant punu work an attractive form of design to include as part of landscaping sustainable gardens based on drought resistant desert plants.  Punu is made from red gum.  Punu objects can be place in gardens as outside sculptures and last for decades and decades, if not longer. Like other materials, the punu responds to the elements, changing gradually from red to grey with a shiny patina from its weathering.  I have a giant punu perrente lizard in my garden which has lasted there for more than 30 years which now has an extraordinary red-grey patina.

Another innovation is adapting the punu as dioramas by placing the punu animals on walka boards, as if they are travelling.  This has some possibility for this concept as a sculptural object with movable pieces that could be developed.  This is supported as a concept by a recent publication of a Mutitjulu children’s book about two punu characters who travel together on a journey.  The real punu objects would be sold as part of a kit with the animals as wooden toys.

Other innovations in new media that are being employed by arts centres in our network of communities who sell through Maruku arts is bronze casting, which is being developed by the Warakurna Artists.  In 2008 Warakurna Artists won the highly contested Reconciliation Australia and BHP Billiton Indigenous Governance Award; which included a $10,000 prize towards governance training and professional development for indigenous artists at the centre.

The Warakurn arts centre Manager Edwina Circuitt is co-ordinating  a program called Wati Wednesdays,  a men’s only day to encourage participation of the younger men or watiWarakurna Artists is also facilitating a weaponry craft project that will culminate in the production of a body of new work. The first work is a limited edition of 6 bronze miru or spearthrowers by Ernest Bennett.  The spears are cast by Blueprint Sculpture. Maruku has also involved itself with glass projects in the past.

Apart from this, Maruku actively seeks relationships with the corporate sector. In November last year we helped to run the world launch of Caterpiller (CAT) trucks.  We were originally approached to find an artist who could create a replica of the honeycomb pattern with the CAT logo on the grille of the new trucks. We gave this commission to one of our senior artists, Billy Cooley, who replicated the design by using the walk technique of pokerwork on a 90 X 90 board, with acrylic colours added afterwards. The piece was subsequently auctioned during the CAT event to raise funds for a truckies’ charity and achieved a very high price.

But our role didn’t stop there. We encouraged the company to place works of art on the large canvas curtains of the trailers these huge trucks tow. This involved four artists and resulted in five huge works. We then suggested that the right inma (traditional song and dance) should be performed for these paintings at the launch. This resulted in a magnificent and utterly unique event on a claypan involving some thirty performers who performed the right inma for the designswith the trucks providing a magnificent backdrop. The company paid our artists well and were very amenable to every suggestion we put forward. This is certainly a way in which we would like to work further – integrating art, inma and story-telling in events both large and small – and hopefully allowing us a reasonably free hand!

CA: What is on the horizon for Maruku Arts?

Clive Scollay: Our main focus in 2011 will be working with the older punu makers – especially the men – to encourage them to pass on their skills to the next generation who have been missing out on skills development with wood.

We will be focussing on new frontiers for placement of our artists’ works – in functional architecture and in children’s programs.  We will be hoping to work with landscape architects and designers to promote the concept of a desert garden using carved punu sculptures, especially the animals.  We would like to promote the garden sculptures with stylists who work with interior and exterior architecture design magazines.

Following on the extraordinary publicity created when Judy Trigger - a Maruku artist - presented Oprah Winfrey with an Ininti seed necklace and bracelets on her show in January, Maruku is looking at possibilities of engaging with the fashion industry.

Apart from this we will continue to work with all our artists and craftspersons in the production and marketing of quality punu.


Kathryn Wells, Craft Australia Communications Manager

February 2011

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Updated: 7 February 2016