A new species, on my mantelpiece
Suddenly Aneirin's face contorted, and released a strange sound. "GRRRHISSSSS!" he said. "It's repti-lion!'
Aneirin may be only two years and a couple of months old, but he has the makings of an art critic (I'd prefer him, of course, to be a carpenter, or a mechanic, or something sensible: that way he could earn some money, and support his parents in their upcoming old age).
in this essay on Tui's art for EyeContact, Tonga's first modern king appropriated and aggrandised himself with the British royal lion back in the nineteenth century. Since then vernacular artists, like the women who indefatigably beat and paint the bark of the ngatu tree in Tongan villages, have been localising the lion Tupou I imported from Europe, by giving it the features of familiar animals like dogs and horses.
Now, in Tui's paintings, Tongan lions have suddenly acquired spiky manes, the baleful red eyes of reptiles, and the long, luxuriant tails of snow leopards. Evolution has taken a sudden and strange turn, and the reptilion has been born.
When Aneirin announced his discovery of the reptilion, I couldn't help remembering the field trip that I made last year, with the students of the 'Atenisi Institute, to 'Eua, that high, porous, and generously forested island in Tonga's far south, and the purported model for the planet of Pandora. When we were planning the trip, I asked students what research projects they'd like to pursue on 'Eua. I mentioned a story I'd heard about a little-seen and uncatalogued frog that supposedly hopped across the island's rainforested roof. Perhaps because frogs are non-existent in the rest of Tonga, one of my students became immoderately excited, and vowed to hunt down 'Eua's mysterious creature.
When we arrived on 'Eua and got an impromptu talk from an Australian natural scientist who worked in the highland, I was embarrassed to learn that I had gotten my cryptids muddled up, and that a unique species of lizard, rather than frog, was reputed to be hiding in the bush. My student was disappointed, and spent his nights drinking kava and singing with the locals, rather than hunting frogs.
recent expedition to the northern archipelago of Vava'u by a group of scientists - why, I wonder, do scientists targeting Tonga so often seem to do their fossicking and digging and note-taking in shapely, shallow-watered, heavily beached regions like Vava'u, rather than on 'Eua, a high and rocky island surrounded by some of the world's deepest and roughest water? - discovered a new species of iguana. With its extravagantly long tail, the creature reminds me just a little of Tui's reptilion.
Crptozoologists - those beardy, cardigan-wearing types who devote their weekends to tracking Bigfoot over the Rockies, or to scanning the cold surface of Loch Ness for disturbances from the lounge of a convenient pub - will presumably be excited by the discovery of the Vava'u iguana. But far stranger creatures have been reported by visitors to the tropical Pacific. During World War Two, the Japanese and Allied troops who struggled through the muddy and malarial forests of Melanesia reported meetings with a number of odd beasts. Japanese troops serving in the Solomons described fifteen foot tall, repulsively hairy giants armed with long clubs, and crabs large and hungry enough to devour a man.
for giants - and for UFO bases. Apparently the hairy cryptids of the Solomons have progressed, in a mere seven decades, from crashing through the jungles with wooden clubs to building, flying, and hiding interstellar spacecraft.
Before this post descends further into the absurdities of cryptozoology, I should mention that Tui Emma Gillies has an exhibition of some of her new paintings opening on Thursday night at the headquarters of arts collective On the Spot in central Nuku'alofa (I wrote about On the Spot, and its many contributions to Nuku'alofa's ongoing arts revolution, here). The show will kick off with some dance by members of the 'Atenisi Performing Arts Foundation, and interpretation of the artworks will be enhanced by free and fast-flowing kava. If you're reading this in the cold country of Niu Sila then you ought to consider taking a fast vaka north for Thursday night's party...
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]