A life-size dinosaur has been installed on a six-foot concrete plinth in Philadelphia Navy Yard, sculpted in black and covered with beaded symbols of the Lenni Lenape people.
At 24 feet long, “Alpha Sacred Beings (The Origin of Creation)” is a life-size and anatomically accurate Parasaurolophus, an herbivore of the Cretaceous period known for its distinctive crest swooping off the back of its head.
It is the first permanent sculpture introduced into the Navy Yard by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the public-private organization that has spent the last two decades developing the former U.S. Navy base into a commercial and residential hub.
The sculpture acts as a sort of land acknowledgement wrought in steel: the Parasaurolophus is in the Hadrosaurus family of dinosaurs, which once roamed this region. The beadwork represents the people who traditionally occupied the land.
“I believe that time is not linear,” said artist Marianela Fuentes. “These beings were living in the same lands that we are now. So all the beadwork represents this time, and the dinosaur represents ancient times.”
The beadwork, resembling very floral tattoos, represent symbols and creation myths of the Lenni Lenape people, who worked with Fuentes to create the patterns by hand.
Fuentes is based in Mexico City and grew up in the state of Coahuila in northeast Mexico, where Parasaurolophus were plentiful. In prehistoric geological eras that region was part of an ocean. Now, as a risen seabed, it is one of the richest places in the world for dinosaur fossils.
Prehistoric beasts have fascinated Fuentes since childhood, when her parents would take her to fossil sites. They have become a recurring influence in her sculptural work.
The bones of “Alpha Sacred Beings” are made from real archaeological casts at the Museum del Desierto, which has the largest collection of dinosaur bones in Mexico.
“I wanted to be an archeologist,” said Fuentes. “But I ended up doing sculpture.”
Every summer for the last five years, the PIDC has worked with the anonymous curatorial collective Group X to install large-scale artist interventions and immersive sculptural work in the Navy Yard, such as a set of giant inflatable sea monster tentacles emerging from a warehouse, a sprawling, human-sized cocoon made entirely out of packaging tape, and a 1984 Ford Thunderbird lowrider festooned as a piñata.
Those art installations have always been temporary, commissioned as a way to draw attention to the changes happening there. Since 2000, PIDC has been developing the Navy Yard into a commercial hub, with plans to start creating housing and recreational facilities.
Spokesperson Jen Tran said PIDC will unveil a master plan for the Navy Yard on June 28, during a celebratory block party.
She could not give details of the plan, but said it is focused on sustainability and inclusion.
“This is a really transformative plan unlike any other that we’ve really seen anywhere for any development in the country that really puts a comprehensive approach to equity in all facets of development,” she said.
The Parasaurolophus is in League Island Park, one of the smaller parks named after the original moniker of the Navy Yard. It is surrounded by a trough of wetland plants, accessible from one side by a boardwalk bridge.
PIDC built a 6-foot concrete plinth in the park to accommodate the dinosaur, ringed by a low concrete bench.
Much of Fuente’s large-scale sculptural work has been commissioned for private company campuses, Google, for example. She is particularly pleased that “Alpha Sacred Beings” is in a public place, where people might sit for lunch at the base of the dinosaur.
“Especially to show this to the kids, because I know kids love dinosaurs,” she said. “I still love them. My first teddy bear was a dinosaur.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.