Owen Yalandja is the son of artists Crusoe Kuningbal and Lena Kuriniya, and grew up at Barrihdjowkkeng outstation in West Arnhem Land between Maningrida and Gunbalanya. His father was the first artist to carve Mimih spirit figures, beginning around 1968. These were originally used in the Mamurrng trade ceremony, as well as in dances. He passed this artform on to Owen as well as his other sons Crusoe Kurddal and Timothy Wulanjbirr, also well known artists.
Yalandja started carving independently following his father’s death in 1984. In the innovative spirit of his father’s work however, he moved away from Mimih carvings and developed a distinctive sculptural style centred on the depiction of Yawkyawk spirits. These slender, female spirits are regarded as the guardians of sacred water bodies. They have tails like fish and for this reason are sometimes referred to as ‘mermaids’. They are at once feared and revered, beautiful and frightening. They protect the land, and for those following the law, can sometimes aid in fishing and other pursuits. However anyone who does not respect a sacred water body can be pulled by them under the water to their death. A billabong in Yalandja’s country of Barrihdjowkkeng is an important sacred site for Yawkyawk, and this spirit is the primary totem of his Dangkorlo clan.
Yalandja’s Yawkyawk spirit carvings are marked by their intricate and delicate surface decoration, incorporating fine dotting or a tiny v-shaped scale pattern of Yalandja’s invention. This intricacy stands in an interesting formal tension with the simple, almost elemental shapes of the Yawkyawk. These are carved from carefully selected, often curved, pieces of northern kurrajong (Brachychiton diversifolius) or ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys). The Yawkyawk take on a form and life of their own, but the form of their parent tree is barely disguised, like a mark of their closeness to the land from which they have sprung. Their faces, with close set eyes and a central vertical line running down their length, are otherworldly and display a subtlety and simple grace which many works by lesser known carvers fail to match. The curves or straightness the carvings gives them their individual life - subtle differences render the Yawyawk graceful, curious, stern or vaguely threatening. Yalandja’s carvings also stand apart in their inventive flair, sometimes incorporating carved and painted details such as smaller Yawkyawk, breasts, unborn babies, and faces in relief.
Owen Yalandja has had a number of solo exhibitions, including at Annandale Galleries, Sydney (2004), Redback Art Gallery, Brisbane (2002) and Aboriginal and Pacific Arts, Sydney (2000). Notable group exhibitions include Crossing Country at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (2004), In the Heart of Arnhem Land: Myth and the making of contemporary Aboriginal art, Musée del l’Hôtel-Dieu, France and the Biennale of Sydney (2000).
Profile author: Dan Kennedy