Kuninjku (Eastern Kunwinjku) people

Maningrida, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory born 1962

Yawkyawk 2007 Place made: Maningrida, Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, natural earth pigments and PVA fixative on Kurrajong wood Carving Support: Hollow log

Dimensions: 225.0 h x 18.0 w 44.8 diameter cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Janet and John Calvert-Jones, 2008
Accession No: NGA 2008.121
Image rights: © Owen Yalandja, courtesy Maningrida Arts & Culture
  • 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.

    Tina Baum
    Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
    in artonview, issue 55, spring 2008

    1. Owen Yalandja, interview with Apolline Kohen, Cadell Outstation, Northern Territory, 4 February 2007.
    2. Yalandja.

    in artonview, issue 55, spring 2008

  • Owen Yalandja is renowned for his exquisitely carved yawkyawk spirit figures. He was taught to carve by his father Crusoe Kuningbal (1922–1984), who was a famed Kuninjku ceremonial leader, bark painter and a carver of mimih spirits. Kuningbal carved slender, life-size mimih figures for a public Kuninjku ceremony called Mamurrng. The use of these figures in ceremony was an innovation and Kuningbal made them a feature of his public art thereafter. After Kuningbal’s death, Yalandja made large mimih carvings similar to those his father made, and developed his practice in the 1990s to include yawkyawk figures decorated with dot patterns. Yawkyawk are young female spirits who live in the waterways. Threatened by an ancestral giant, the girls transformed into mermaid-like figures and escaped by swimming away.

    To depict scales on his yawkyawk sculptures, Yalandja first experimented with arc-like shapes and later refined these to the ‘V’ shapes seen in these works.

    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.[1]

    Yalandja’s yawkyawk sculptures tend to have tapering bodies ending with a forked fish tail. He selects pieces of wood that best suggest movements of the fish-like forms, sometimes making use of natural forks for the tail. He selects curvilinear tree trunks to render the slender and sensuous yawkyawk forms. These yawkyawk sculptures possess a particular beauty and sensuality not always associated with Aboriginal sculpture.

    Gary Lee

    [1] Owen Yalandja, interviewed by Apolline Kohen at Cadell Outstation, Northern Territory, 4 February 2007, in B L Croft (ed), Culture Warriors, 2007, p 180.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010