Native Canadian Ambiguous Art

Depending how you see it, this panel either shows two killer whales looking at one another in profile, or a bear looking at you head on – the killer whales’ fins top centre become the bears’ ears.  And then the killer whales’ tails centre bottom become the mouth of a third creature, probably a frog, but the carving was never finished, so only its eyes are carved.

The panel is probably about a hundred years old, and is about five foot wide (1.6 meters or so).  It’s not known why it was never finished, but in the tradition of north west coast Canadian carving, the decoration on the killer whales would have been carved into deeper relief, not just sketched out on the surface.  Nor is it known from just which ethnic group in North West Coast Canada it comes.

However in the mythology of all the groups of that area, such as the Haida and the Kwakuitl, transformations of one creature into another are part of the scheme of things.  That includes transformations by hunting and eating, which were traditionally understood as sacred activities.  So what we see here is not just a visual game, but has spiritual meanings.

For more on that see our earlier post on ambiguous patterns, and other posts in the Illusions and Aesthetics category.

The panel is in the reserve collection of the Manchester Museum.

Cheating with tessellations

Tessellations are patterns whose repeat motifs fit together like jig-saw pieces, with no gaps and no repeats.  For an introduction, see our earlier animation. They can be abstract patterns, but the most intriguing are the ones devised by tessellation maestro M.C.Escher in the middle of the last century, which show representational motifs, such as animals, as tessellating patterns.

Designing abstract patterns that tessellate successfully is just a matter of getting the hang of some rules.  Discovering representational motifs that tessellate is much, much harder.  There are no procedures, or none that I know anyway.  It’s all trial and error, mostly error for me, and really hard!  Escher was brilliant at it.  My efforts are pretty feeble.

But fortunately, you can at least include representational motifs within your tessellations with a little trickery.  The pattern above, based on Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian Man, is an example.  The secret is to use segments of the outline of the representational motif for part of the outline of the tessellating pattern cell.

You do need to be up to speed with making abstract tessellations, and also pretty expert with Photoshop or an equivalent graphics package.  But if you’ve reached that point, or are just curious, here are stages in the development of the pattern shown above….


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