Owen Yalandja: Owen’s Country

Owen Yalandja’s award-winning sculptures give movement and power to the Ancestral female freshwater spirit yawkyawk.

Words: Tina Baum

The representation of Ancestors, family, culture and Country is central to Kuninjku artist Owen Yalandja’s practice. Known for his captivating sculptures, Yalandja has more recently ventured into bark paintings.

Starting his career in the early 1980s under the tutelage of his father Crusoe Kuningbal (1922-1984), both Yalandja and his brother Crusoe Kurddal (1960-2020) began carving similar mimih figures their father was renowned for. The Kuninjku mimih’s are representations of mischievous spirit beings with long slender bodies that live in local rocky escarpment areas in Arnhem Land.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Yalandja’s sculptural practice evolved to solely focus on an Ancestral female freshwater spirit, the yawkyawk. Utilising the cultural dotting style taught to him by his father, Yalandja also developed a distinctive upside down v chevron design to represent scales. Yawkyawk are believed to be young women who transformed into mermaid-like beings with a human torso and a fish tail, much like the more commonly known saltwater mermaids. As a senior member of the Dangkorlo clan he is also a custodian of the sacred billabong where the yawkyawk spirits still reside near his outstation Barrihdjowkkeng.

“Yawkyawk is my dreaming,” says Yalandja, “and she lives in the water at Barrihdjowkkeng near where I have set up my outstation. She has always been there. I often visit this place. I love making these sculptures and I have invented a way to represent the fish scales on her body. The colours I use have particular meanings (not public) and I make them either red or black. I am now teaching my kids to carve, just like my father did for us.”

Using a limited palette of two or three ochre colours on each work, Yalandja often combines contrasting white, black, yellow and red either for the overlying fine designs or as the base colour. His steady and methodical hand can be seen in his work with the fine dots stippled in neat rows across the chest and breasts down to the waist and his v design flowing down the tail that stops at the fins. The combination of these designs alludes to the shimmer of scales or a watery rippling effect creating an optical illusion of power and energy or movement across their body.

His sculptures are life sized, with a minimal delicate face, hairless, sometimes with thin and twisted bodies, sometime plumper carved laying straight. All yawkyawk’s feature short arms laying against the side of the body, some without and some with breasts, the only indicator of their gender. Only using Kurrajong – Brachychiton diversifolius wood – Yalandja exploits the natural form and fork in the tree to further suggest flowing aquatic movements.

Usually creating individual, stand-alone yawkyawks, in 2022 Yalandja created an installation of 12 figures shown collectively at Michael Reid, Sydney. This year he won the prestigious NATSIAA Telstra Bark Award category with his bark painting Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk, 2023. Although still relating to the yawkyawk story, this work was an exciting diversion from his usual sculptures with the natural undulations in the bark creating movement with his designs instead. Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk is an old story from his father about the yawkyawk women called Ngalkodjek who live in the same waterhole out in Yalandja’s Country. “When they walk down from the bush, they follow a set path that belongs to them and they walk along calling out. That is their path which they take. It is an old traditional route,” says Yalandja.

With a dedicated long association exhibiting artists from Maningrida Arts and Culture, Michael Reid, Sydney will present work by Yalandja in November 2023. The highly sinuous organic sculptures and the duality of sculpture on bark paintings in the exhibition continue to show Yalandja’s adaptability and innovation.

As a highly respected and accomplished senior Kuninjku artist, Yalandja’s practice and ongoing yawkyawk representation ensure his works remain an important cultural and artistic legacy of his skill, vision, cultural knowledge and identity.

Writer and critic

“[I first came across Owen’s work] at the end of the dry season, 2020 and I was seconded for short-term research job at Maningrida Arts & Culture. I came into the art centre one afternoon and one of Owen’s mesmerizing lorrkon (hollow log) was laying prostrate on the floor. The lorrkon was probably about 2 metres tall and painted in its entirety: a series of white marks laced across the deep black background in a way that recalls cascading beads of water. To me, the work looked complete – it just needed to be stood upright for display – but Owen was on his way into the art centre. He’s a meticulous painter, every fine mark and detail is considered.

“Owen’s work is quite literally compelling, in that he marks barks and lorrkon with white pigment so as to compel they eye – make it dart and dance around the composition. This kind of bodily reaction is what brings the work to life. The viewer has a lived relation with the work, even if only temporarily. It’s also the process, that the barks and lorrkon are local materials, the white ochre is of the earth and the black is born of fire. There is something deeply ecological and spiritual about Owen’s painting.

“Owen’s painting asks us to rethink art histories in this country and look more deeply at the relationship between language, history, and painting.”

Director, Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

“We have been showing Owen Yalandja for the last 5 years at Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin. We have an exhibiting relationship with Maningrida Arts and Culture that stretches back almost 20 years now.

“Owen’s creative drive has always set his work apart. A combination of innovation and execution are the hallmarks of his work. The winning bark painting at this years NATSIAAs is beyond comprehension. Needlepoint accuracy, shimmering and powerful in it’s confident abstraction of the yawkyawk form.

“Owen’s pricing is still very enticing for collectors. We have controlled the pricing despite some of the incredible Auction records, preferring to price the work for steady growth over a long period of time. Owen has never had an unsold work. The volume is never high, but the execution is unparalleled. The majority of Owen’s work sells for between $4,000 and $20,000 depending on scale. Large scale works are rare and extremely sought after. His prices will likely move up by about 10-20% for the next show, to accommodate the surge in demand for 2023, driven by his continuing elevation as a major senior artist, his success in the NATSIAAs, and his major sold out presence at Sydney Contemporary.

“Collectors with an eye for quality, and uniqueness are drawn to Owen’s work. The works are made with such intense care that they follow the form of religious icons; intense and powerful objects. Owen’s forms, distinct palettes and intricate designs elevate him above the majority of artists working in spirit figure carvings and bark painting.”

Featured image: Owen Yalandja at work. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 106, October-December 2023. 


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