Owen Yalandja is a Kuninjku artist from Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land and a senior member of the Dangkorlo clan. Born in 1962, he is a noted sculptor whose exceptional works have gained much attention and prominence in recent times, particularly his exquisitely carved yawkyawk spirit figures.
The yawkyawk are believed by Kuninjku to be young girl spirits or ancestors who live in the water and whose shadows can sometimes be seen as they run away from humans who might come near. Yawkyawk are a recurring theme in Kuninjku bark paintings.
Yalandja’s father, the late Crusoe Kuningbal, was a famed Kuninjku singer, dancer and ceremonial leader, as well as an accomplished painter of barks and a carver of the mimih spirits. Mimih spirits are believed by Kuninjku to be long, thin, mischievous beings who inhabit the rocks of the escarpment country. Kuningbal is said to have invented the songs and dances of a public Kuninjku ceremony called Mamurrng for which he danced the mimih and in which he incorporated life-sized carvings of them.
After their father’s death in 1984, both Yalandja and his brother Crusoe Kurddal produced large mimih carvings similar to the ones made by their father for the Mamurrng ceremony. In the 1990s Yalandja began to experiment with the dot patterning taught by his father, and created the ‘v’ shaped fish-scale patterning in his sculptural representations:
I make it [yawkyawk] according to my individual ideas … My father used to decorate them with dots. A long time ago, he showed me how to do this. But this style is my own, no one else does them like this.
Yalandja’s brother Kurrdal has continued to carve mimih spirits while Yalandja now concentrates on the yawkyawk.
Since the yawkyawk are imagined as spirit girls who were transformed into mermaid-like figures with fish tails, in depicting scales on his sculptures – first as arc-like shapes and later refined to the ‘v’ shape – Yalandja has effected a unique innovation. He has also experimented with using black as a ground colour, rather than the red other family members use. Yalandja’s yawkyawk sculptures also tend to have a tapering body ending with a forked fish tail. He selects pieces of wood that best suggest movements in the fish-like forms, sometimes making use of natural forks to portray the tail. In other works he has selected curvilinear tree trunks to depict the slender and sensuous yawkyawk forms. These yawkyawk sculptures, with their exquisitely rendered scales, have a special beauty and sensuality not always associated with three-dimensional Aboriginal forms of art.
Yalandjais one of Australia’s most accomplished sculptors. He is also a recorded didjeridu player and a well-known singer for yawkyawkstyle diplomacy ceremonies. The five magnificent yawkyawk sculptures he has contributed to Culture Warriors attest to his respect for tradition and his capacity for artistic innovation, for which we can all be grateful.
 Maningrida Arts and Culture website, viewed 2 April 2007, maningrida.com.