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The Asian Parallels of the Decorative Art
of the Northwest Pacific Coast Amerindians

The decorative art of the Northwest Pacific Coast Amerindians is one the great art styles of the Americas. It is impossible to view this art without seeing some similarity with other art forms of the northern Pacific region. The parallelism however does not mean there is any genetic connection. Two art styles in the same region may be responding to the same features in nature. There might be the same response to satisfying the same conditions of good design. For example, two unrelated art styles may abhor leaving blank spaces in decorative art. Or two parallel art forms may be derived from a common source rather than one from the other.

Leonhard Adam, after studying the decorative art of the Northwest Coast Amerindians, concluded that there are eight principles involved in the art:

The Haida painting of a fish, called a dog-fish, illustrates some of the above principles. It is symmetric and involves a split of the fish showing two profiles. There are also dislocations of features.

Below is wall mural from a Haida house which depicts a mythical being named Qonaqada. It demonstrates a number of the above principles of the art including the eighth one in which parts of the creature's body are also the beaks and eyes of birds.

These principles also show up in Asian art. In particular the decorative feature of ancient Shang dynasty bronze vases called the tao tieh is very similar in structure to the art shown above. Here are a few examples:

This is simultaneously a shamanistic mask and pictures of dragons and birds.

A more elaborate version is given below.

The relation of the tao tieh motif to a shaman mask is illustrated in the image below of such as a shaman mask.

Leonhard Adam suggests that the mask originated from the shamanistic use of animal heads.

(To be continued.)


Leonhard Adam, "North-West American Indian Art and Its Early Chinese Parallels," Man, (January, 1936), pp. 8-10.

Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1965.

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