UP arts student and malaria institute collaborate on a project to impart health-focused messages

Posted on November 29, 2021

Art and science recently came together with an exhibition of work by University of Pretoria (UP) Fine Arts Master student Danielle Oosthuizen, whose art collection After Nature is the result of a two-year collaboration with the UP Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC), a transdisciplinary research unit.

The exhibition was held over two days in the Student Gallery in the Javett-UP Art Centre as part of Oosthuizen’s examination process. “After Nature explores the symbiosis between humans and nature,” Oosthuizen said. “This means that what we put in to nature, nature feeds back to us. The exhibition looked at this cycle with a special focus on malaria. “The interaction of artistic inquiry and life sciences research offers a unique articulation of science, making it accessible while availing different mode of transferring knowledge”, said Dr Adéle Adendorff from the UP School of Arts and Oosthuizen’s supervisor.

Malaria remains a public health concern despite continuing efforts to control and eliminate the disease. “Raising awareness about malaria is a preventative strategy that provides necessary knowledge about the disease, thereby empowering people to take their health into their own hands,” said Professor Tiaan de Jager, Director of the UP ISMC and Oosthuizen’s co-supervisor. “The impact of art on a scientific topic is new, unique and is creating new opportunities to make research more accessible to people from various backgrounds.”

The art exhibition was constructed around four major themes – climate change, the mosquito, harmful control and bio-acoustic soundscapes – evoking specific concerns around malaria, humanity and the environment. These concerns were explored through sound and acoustics, video installation, photography and living bio-art. The artworks were born from transdisciplinary collaborations, where science and social science researchers worked together to create provocative and informative malaria-focused messages.

The “harmful control” theme was explored in the video art installation Biocide, which consisted of four large white screens, each with a digital projection amplifying the effects of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a deadly insecticide, on four living specimens: a bee, a small bird, abstracted plant life, and food crops. “The works expose the often-unseen effects of biotechnology and their effects on life,” Oosthuizen said.

Three artwork pieces - 'Khosi khadzi wa lufu', 'Biocide', and 'A dangerous game'.

A Dangerous Game addressed climate change and highlighted the impact of global warming on vector proliferation and its effects on the future of humans and nature. The installation comprised of six plinths, each with a glass box filled with varying levels of water containing infant mosquito larvae. “The artwork became a performance where the water levels in the different glass boxes slowly change over time using a system of fluid mechanics, depicting the unpredictability in the dispersion of weather and its impact on vector-borne diseases.” Oosthuizen explained.

Mosquitoes took centre stage in the piece titled Khosi khadzi wa lufu, the Tshivenda name given to the female Anopheles mosquito and means ‘queen of death’. The piece was displayed in a dark room, with the glowing silhouettes of mosquitoes covered in scientific neon-dust dye, standing out among other, seemingly normal (undusted) mosquitoes under ultraviolet lights. According to Oosthuizen, the “small insects become the visual amplification of human intervention in nature”.

Lufu kha a kovhela, meaning ‘death after sundown’ in Tshivenda, was a series of photographs taken in the UP ISMC insectary while experimenting with different dyes. A micro lens on slow shutter was used to capture the ghostly trails left by the mosquitoes as they flew around in a glass enclosure. “The image of a mosquito is often regarded as symbolic of malaria,” said Dr Megan Riddin, the UP ISMC’s medical entomologist. “The mosquito vectors that transmit the disease-causing Plasmodium parasite, is active from dusk till dawn.”

“The photographs carry a double meaning,” Oosthuizen added. “From one perspective, they capture the enigmatic nature of the mosquitoes, as they are described in local folklore, as spirits lurking in the night to bring death. From another, the work draws parallels between the potential increase in global warming and malaria, where the images of the red-coated, flying mosquitoes can be compared to solar flares emitted by the sun.”

'Lufu kha a kovhela' - Death after sundown

Researchers from the fields of public health, entomology, information technology, music and fine arts collaborated on the bio-acoustic soundscape Anopheles. The 11-minute long acousmatic sound work for 32-channel ambisonic projection, composed by Dr Miles Warrington of UP’s Department of Music, told the story of the repetitious, ongoing battle between man and mosquito, and in extension malaria. The sound installation was created using the wingbeat frequencies of hundreds of Anopheles arabiensis mosquitoes, recorded and transformed using various electroacoustic synthesis, layering and material generation techniques. “By incorporating these techniques, the sound of the mosquitoes are transformed from natural to unnatural,” Oosthuizen said.

Prof Richard Foss and Sean Devonport, both Rhodes University computer science alumni and co-founders of the company ImmersiveDSP, processed and delivered the installation post-composition utilising their ImmerGo spatialisation software. The speakers used for the installation were on loan from Tuerk Music. “As far as we are aware, this is the largest multi-channel ambisonic sound installation that utilises acousmatic composition techniques to be installed in SA,” Dr Warrington said.

Tachycardia, which describes an abnormally fast heartbeat, was a series of prints that visually represented selected soundwaves of Anopheles, and mimicked the familiar rhythms of a heartbeat as captured by an electrocardiogram. “The series metaphorically relates this fast-paced heartbeat to the rapid development of technology and the environment’s struggles to keep up,” Oosthuizen said. “The connection between Anopheles and a heartbeat echoes the responsibility we should have towards maintaining and growing the Earth in a healthy way.”

'Tachycardia' - Fast heartbeat

The exhibition was not open to the public due to COVID-19 regulations. The UP ISMC aims to open the exhibition again in 2022. More information will be available from early next year on the institute’s website.

For a brief glimpse of the exhibition:

Click here for a video about the collaboration; here for a video of snippets of the exhibition; here to watch the making of the bio-acoustic art piece; and here to listen to the full length bio-acoustic piece.

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