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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
Owen Yalandja is primarily a sculptor with a lineage linking him to the finest carvers of his clan. He began carving in the early 1990s and, though they became increasingly popular in the primary market, it was not until 2002 that his first works began to appear at auction. His earliest record, set that year at $14,400, was at least 4 times the price that a comparable work could be bought in the primary market. Prior to 2004 his works could be purchased through a range of good exhibiting galleries including the Hogarth Galleries, Aboriginal and Pacific Arts, Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery and Coo-ee Aboriginal Art. However it was his subsequent exclusive representation by Annandale Galleries in Sydney that introduced his serpentine delicate pieces to a new collector base. He was especially prolific during the period 2004 to 2010 and with a good supply of high quality pieces in the primary market very little appeared for auction prior to 2009. In that year 3 sculptures appeared and sold for a combined total of $26,520 and by the end of the following year when four works sold for $75,480, the number of pieces that had appeared at public auction had risen to 9. His current record price was set in 2016 when a 266 cm high sculpture entitled Yawk Yawk Fresh Water Mermaid Spirit at Barrhidjowkeng sold in Sotheby's London sale for GBP30,000 ($AUD51,462). This displaced his previous record set in 2013 when a 218 cm high work carried a pre-sale estimate of $15,000-20,000 at Deutscher & Hackett (Lot 135) sold for $36,000 including Buyer's Premium. Interestingly two other substantial pieces (far heavier and more robust than his more recognised works) have sold for more than $30,000 each. Only one bark by Yalandja has ever appeared for auction. Depicting a Mimih spririt in a minimal style similar to the delicate dotted decoration on his carvings, this small 40.5 x 19.5 cm painting sold for $2440 at Mossgreen's July 2014 sale (Lot 44). 2015 was by far the most active year for offerings of Yalandja's work at auction. No less than 7 works were on offer, and by the end of the year he had a career success rate of 82% and a very healthy average price of $10,364. Owen Yalandja now has 35 recorded offerings at public auction and is firmly established amongst the top 100 artists of all time. His most appealing works are thin whispy and etherial. The last time a set of beautiful, pieces such as this appeared at public auction was in 2009 when a set of 4 sold for $19,200 at Sotheby's. As nicely mounted and presented examples like these appear in the years ahead, expect intense interest.
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