Kuninjku (Eastern Kunwinjku) people
Maningrida, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory born 1962
2004 Description: M399 1380-04
Place made: Maningrida, central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, woodwork, natural pigments on wood carved
The Kuninjku people in the Maningrida region of Central Arnhem Land believe that yawk yawks are mermaid-like manifestations of young female ancestors. They have slender undulating bodies, fine scales, forked tails, pointed breasts and long, almost featureless faces. If disturbed or frightened, the shadowy figures of these magnificent water creatures can be seen fleeing into the depths of Mirrayar billabong, an important yawk yawk site and sacred Yirritja moiety place. The Dangkorlo clan are custodians of this billabong.
Owen Yalandja, a Kuninjku (eastern Kunwinjku) artist and a senior member of the Dangkorlo clan, is a renowned sculptor and is well known for his carving and singing at yawk yawk ceremonies. He was born in 1962 and is the son of Kuninjku ceremonial leader, painter and carver Crusoe Kuningbal (1922–1984) and brother to Crusoe Kurddal (b. 1961). It wasn’t until the death of their father that Yalandja and Kurddal began carving mimih spirits. Their sculptures were similar to those of their father, but they produced the figures at a larger scale to better represent the size and form of mimih – tall, slender spirits that live in the rocky environment of the Arnhem Land plateau.
My father … taught me and my brother … how to carve. He only did mimih spirit figures and when I first started as an artist I used to make mimih figures as well. Then, I decided to change and to start representing yawk yawk spirit figures.1
Yalandja began experimenting with the painted designs and use of colour and, while Kurddal continued carving mimih, Yalandja began carving yawk yawk. He would carve their bodies like those of the mimih – tall, very slender and often with intricate detail over their sometimes twisted bodies. Today, however, his yawk yawk sculptures are more distinct and refined from his mimih figures.
Yawk yawk is a bit the equivalent of a mermaid in balanda [white] culture. Yawk yawk is my Dreaming 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 [which are not public]. I make them either red or black. I am now teaching my kids to carve, just like my father did for us.
I make it [yawk yawk] 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.2
Yalandja uses only kurrajong (Brachychiton diversifolius) wood, the same wood his father used, and natural earth pigments with PVA (polyvinyl acetate) fixatives to create the stunning designs on his figures. He selects unusual trunks that are thin and curvilinear, giving his figures a sinewy appearance and creating the impression of movement in the body and tail. The natural fork in the tree often provides the fork of the yawk yawk’s tail.
Yalandja is now passing on his knowledge by teaching his son Dustin Bonson to carve mimih spirits.
These three exquisite yawk yawk figures, along with three others, were first featured in the exhibition Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial, which is currently on tour around Australia and will open and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, its second touring venue, on 20 September 2008. They were kindly gifted by Janet and John Calvert-Jones and are fine additions to the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of six other stunning yawk yawks.
Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
1. Owen Yalandja, interview with Apolline Kohen, Cadell Outstation, Northern Territory, 4 February 2007.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra