Monday, 29 December 2014

Mesozoic Reptiles In The Style Of Pacific Northwest Tribal Art

In 1975 the BBC continued its tradition of broadcasting excellent educational documentaries by airing the seven-part series The Tribal Eye. Written and presented by the then-popular-and-now-legendary David Attenborough, the series explored tribal art and customs, focusing on, among others, the Haida and Kwakwaka'wakw of the Pacific Northwest, the Aztecs and Incas of South America and the Qashqai of Iran.

A few years ago, I came into possession of a bunch of free DVDs, each one bearing a single episode from Attenborough's myriad documentaries.  For The Tribal Eye, 'Crooked Beak Of Heaven' was chosen for inclusion in the set, and it was this episode which looked at the Haida and Kwakwaka'wakw, their customs and their art. Being a lifelong Attenborough fan, sitting through the lot of them end-to-end was no real chore, and I'd seen many of them before. That said, The Tribal Eye is one which had totally bypassed me. I wasn't at all familiar with indigenous American culture but I could listen to three hours of football scores so long as Attenborough was reading them, so I had no qualms about The Tribal Eye.

Sir David Attenborough, before the Queen went at him with a sword. (© BBC)
The Pacific Northwest is home to several indigenous tribes, all with their distinctive artistic styles. 'Crooked Beak of Heaven', named after the cannibal bird in Haida folklore, begins with obligatory background gen on the Haida, set against a backdrop of old and new photography of their tribal totem poles and villages. It's not the happiest of beginnings and, whether intentional or not, effectively describes a scene of widespread cultural devastation as a consequence of Western settlers' oppressive governance. Wrecked communal houses and collapsed totems convey a sense of abandonment, a people pressured to the point that their cultural identity had simply lost priority. It makes for depressing viewing.

Weathered and decayed Haida totem poles. Stills from The Tribal Eye - Crooked Beak of Heaven (© BBC)
According to my documentary and anecdotal sources (I don't have any direct experience of Amerindian tribes), the situation has improved somewhat, and continues to do so - though I'm sure there are exceptions which those in-the-know can add in the comments. Tribal identity is not now just important to indigenous culture but is also a highly valuable commodity protected under US law (thanks Raven for the heads-up).

A common theme in Haida art is their representations of animals. Commonly encountered animals form the vast majority of the animals featured in their carvings and paintings and comprise orca, beluga whales, beavers, bears, frogs and birds. They appear on totem poles (see above), on textile screens and as ritualistic masks.
The "Crooked Beak Of Heaven" as shown in this tribal ritual mask. Described as a 'cannibal bird', it holds a man's head in its jaws. (© BBC)
For a palaeoillustrator, it's hard not to imagine Mesozoic animals rendered in the style of the Haida and the Kwakwaka'wakw - especially their interpretations of cetaceans, which are already halfway to being ichthyosaurs. And so I thought I'd give it a go and see where it went. Here are the results of several hours' intense faffing.

Generalised ichthyosaur, based on the Haida orca (© 2014 Gareth Monger)

Of course, when one takes an animal and re-imagines it in the style of the Haida or Kwakwaka'wakw, it loses a lot of its biological identity. I found that when any attempt was made to retain features which could be used to identify a particular species, the illustration moved too far from looking 'Haida'. For this reason, I only sketched up generalised animals, though the pterosaur remained stubbornly accurate. There are certain stylistic traits which appear to be common to many examples of tribal animal art, for example, hooked tips to fins and exaggerated teeth. I haven't come across any depictions of dead animals, but a dead plesiosaur with its neck pulled back over its body is far easier to fit into a square format.

An elasmosaur, looking 'all washed up'. I figured this is how most people would expect to see a plesiosaur. Cue comments about dorsoventral preservation. (© 2014 Gareth Monger)
Unlike imitators like me, true tribal members will follow certain rules whereby certain types of space-filling patterns convey certain meanings. Faces placed in areas of key organs, such as the stomach, may represent gods, so I placed one in the azhdarchid's shoulder girdle, emphasising its importance in quadrupedal launching. Other than that, I played it safe. After all, they're not my gods.

An azhdarchid pterosaur. Dead. (© 2014 Gareth Monger)

Rebecca Groom, of PalaeoPlushies fame, expertly models an ichthyosaur. Note sneaky Natee product placement on sofa. (Used with permission.)
So, now I've tenuously linked Amerindian tribal art with Mesozoic reptiles, all that's left is to point you in the direction of where you can buy it on stuff. If you want to be like Rebecca and wear a rampant ichthyosaur (or even dead pterosaurs and plesiosaurs) go here, where you'll find my Redbubble page and, specifically, my Palaeoart collection. If, unlike Rebecca, you've still not come out about your unhealthy palaeo thoughts, you may simply wish to purchase some stationery with which to converse with other similarly-sick individuals - in which case a set of three greetings cards is available here. All proceeds prevent me from cannibalising my children.

That just leaves me to say thanks very much for all the page visits since I started this at the beginning of December, and for all the shares and comments, both on and off the blog. Happy New Year and I hope 2015 treats you well.


  1. Just read your interview in Fossil News! Great stuff! Great art!

  2. Just read your interview in Fossil News! Great stuff! Great art!

    1. Many thanks! It was great to be invited to submit some work to the magazine.