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Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk

This artwork depicts the Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk of Barrihdjowkkeng country.

“This story is very old. That old man [my father Crusoe Kuningbal] when he was alive, told that story to me, to all of us. He told us about the yawkyawk (mermaid) spirit women called Ngalkodjek who lives in the billabong on my country. He told us how they call out loudly, how they call out as they walk along.

That is what they do, calling out. They walked around eating bush foods like those little bush yams. They would pound the yams into a pulp and eat them. That is their traditional food which they eat.

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.

They placed a woman’s breast into the country. That rock was not there originally, but it was a woman’s breast. It is the breast of those women.

They put that djang [sacred place] there, and then at the time when non-Aboriginal people arrived in the region, then the breast turned to stone. Now it has turned solid into rock.”

– Owen Yalandja

Name: Owen Yalandja

Language: Kuninjku

Community: Maningrida


Kuninjku artist Owen Yalandja is a senior member of the Dangkorlo clan, the custodians of an important yawkyawk site. In the early 1980s, Yalandja learned carving from his father, renowned artist Crusoe Kuningbal who invented, in the early 1960’s the representation of mimih spirit in sculptural form for use in a trade ceremony called Mamurrng. Members of the Darnkolo clan have re-established an outstation community at Barrihdjowkkeng near a billabong that is a Yirridjdja moiety sacred site for the yawkyawk spirits. Yawkyawk or young spirit girls live in this billabong and their shadows can occasionally be seen as they humans who approach. They are girls who transformed into mermaid-like figures with fish tails. The identity of the Darnkolo clan is very much related to the Yawkyawk djang (dreaming) for which they have spiritual and practical responsibility.  Yalandja and his brother Crusoe Kurddal followed their father's legacy but over the years have found their own distinct styles.

In the early 1990s, Yalandja experimented with the dot patterns his father taught him, and created V shaped marks to represent the scales of the watery beings. As Yalandja says, “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 continued to innovate, “In the early 1990s Yalanja experimented with the patterns of dots taught to him by his father and created new arrangements; first in arcs to suggest scales, but later he developed small v- shaped marks to suggest individual scales.”1  Yalandja works exclusively with the kurrajong tree for carving and carefully selects trunks which can be thin and curvilinear to give his figures a sinuous appearance. Yalandja’s work is represented in major International collections and has been exhibited at major institutions both locally and globally including at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne Museum, Bargehouse Gallery, London and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. His work has also been presented at the Venice Biennale, Biennale of Sydney and the National Australian Indigenous Triennial.

1. Taylor, Luke. 2005. “Manifestations of the Mimih.” In the Power of Knowledge and the Resonance of Tradition, ed. Luke Taylor, Graeme Ward, Graham Henderson, Richard Davis, and Lynley Wallis, 182-98.

© the artist / art centre