The Mosquito Painter

The-Art-Critic-small

 
A Thai mosquito painter, his life and art, mosquitos, and how to get rid of ’em.

First-big-painting-copy

A beautiful, Rousseau-esque mosquito painting by Mr. Manop. What the hey?! She’s got a giant mosquito in her lap. Is it a pet?

I discovered this artist’s paintings after popping into the “Insect Museum” in Chiang Mai. There are several odd things about them:

  • The paintings are exhibited in an “Insect Museum”
  • There are mammoth mosquitoes in them
  • The artist is Thai
  • He didn’t start painting until he was over 70
  • He is overly fond of mosquitoes
Mr.-Manop

Mosquito painter, Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul

mozzie

close-up

detail of painting with mosquito, oddly in silhouette.

I detest mosquitoes. I live in tropical Thailand and get bit all the time. A few people I work with have had Dengue Fever (a.k.a. “break-bone fever”), and I know of a couple people who have just came down with it. A quick internet search reveals there have been over 2,000 cases of Dengue Fever in Chiangmai in 2013. As of April, this year, 24,000 people have been infected in Thailand, and it’s predicted to reach 100,000, the record for the country.

DENGUE-MOZZIE

The culprit – Aedes aegypti – which transmits Dengue Fever, feeding on a human host.

As a matter of civic responsibility I kill mosquitoes whenever I get the chance. I feel a duty to swat them as they hover in restrooms. To stay protected I douse myself regularly with ostensibly non-toxic mosquito repellent, and I have water pots teaming with guppies on my balcony to help control the natural population that lays their eggs in standing water.

My pots of mosquito-eating guppies on my balcony (including separate smaller pots for the babies).

A single female can lay up to 10,000 eggs in a lifespan of less than 3 weeks. She deposits them just above the surface of water. Then, after a rain or any time the water level rises, the eggs hatch and enter a larval stage. I know what the larvae looks like, because when I was a boy I found some in a small, metal band-aid container full of rain water, and researched them with fascination.

bandaid-container

Mosquitoes can lay eggs in anything that can hold even a small amount of water. The first time I ever saw them was in a discarded Band-Aid tin.

Now, when I peer in various reservoirs of standing water around town, I often find those same larvae twitching around beneath the surface.

A very short and interesting video about the mosquito life-cycle, which also shows how easy it is for them to reproduce in any small reservoir of water, as well as how effective fish like guppies are at devouring them.

It’s been proven that emptying any reservoirs of sitting water, and keeping guppies in outdoor planters can nearly eradicate mosquitoes in a given area, yet these common sense measures aren’t being observed very thoroughly here in Chiangmai. The Aedes aegypti mosquito (the Dengue giver) doesn’t venture far from the pool of water where it was born, so, if the mosquito that gives you dengue bit you near your home, it was also born there, in which case your sickness could likely have been prevented.

fish-used-against-Dengue

No new cases of Dengue in ten Lao villages! And it’s all due to dumping out standing water and keeping fish. Look at the happy girls with bags of guppies in the upper right. With such a win-win situation, what are we waiting for in Thailand?

What’s this again? A proven highly effective, green, beautiful, ethical, practical, and easy way to control mosquitoes and their diseases in your city? Just keep fish and dump out any standing water?! Nah, let’s just spray poison everywhere and fill up the hospital wards.

There’s a plethora of information on this, such as this authoritative article by the the University of Arizona College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, which claims, “Outdoor chemical foggers will keep mosquitoes away for several hours, but once the chemical dissipates, the mosquitoes return.” On the other hand, they assert, “Most small minnow fish (such as guppies…) are good at reducing mosquito larvae populations and are suitable for release into garden ponds.”

Unfortunately, many of the locals and expats don’t know or bother to dispose of standing water in pots, buckets, planters, used tires, rain gutters, and other places where it can collect. In the photos below you can see five large planters that are mosquito sanctuaries a stone’s throw from Thapae gate in Old Town Chiangmai, which is one of the main tourist centers of the city.

mosquito-breeding-central

Across from tourist-central Thaphae gate in old city, Chiangmai, there was an unintended mosquito breeding ground: five pots of still water with no fish to prey on the aquatic larva. I’ve subsequently introduced some of my own stock of guppies into each of them. Soon they should be mosquito proof.

Within the last several weeks I’ve released some of my own guppies into the pots, clandestinely, to tackle this problem. Just today I checked up on the fish, and they’re still there. There’s some small pleasure seeing fish I raised myself swimming in those pots, preventing a scourge of mosquitoes and countless bites.

Here I am releasing the first batch of guppies into one of these public planters, where mosquitoes could previously breed unchecked.

Why hadn’t anyone bothered to put fish in there before? Perhaps they believe that getting bit or not has more to do with fate or karma than with practical methods of controlling the insect populations. Or else they put too much faith in the chemical concoctions of modern science. Those of us that live here know when we hear a sound like an amplified leaf-blower we’d better RUN and close all the windows. If one had time I can imagine using duct tape. In the video below you can see the tail end of a spraying from a couple weeks ago. I would have captured the full horror of it, but was trying to put my portable fan outside to blow the smoke away from my fish pots.

Evidence of the local insect repellent fogger from my balcony. This is his second pass, and nothing compared to the giant plume that welled up and engulfed my plants on the first run.

I don’t know how effective this method of permeating everything with a poison cloud is for killing mosquitoes. It DOES seem to do a good job on the local natural predators. The next day there was a desiccated gecko on the stairs, and some of the fish in a neighbor’s pond were going belly-up. So, I imagine that if it can kill lizards and fish, it can kills bugs, and probably make people sick as well. I’ve heard it’s for the roaches, but it didn’t have any effect on them unless it was to give them a pleasant social buzz. They’ve been out in force and my unintended empty beer can trap appears to be more effective than the spray (see my post about this with graphic images). Besides, roaches are just unsightly and have bad mental associations. They can’t kill you. The mosquitoes are the real threat. And the very next day after the spraying there was a monsoon-style downpour which likely washed away any residual poison. Thus, unless the cloud killed all mosquitoes in it’s path (if my fish survived than mosquitoes could on 2nd floors across the city), they’d have to exterminate again, because now there are more puddles and pooled water for the larvae to metamorphose in.

The next day a torrential downpour washes away any remnants of the pesticide fogging, while simultaneously creating countless min-environments for the females to lay their eggs in.

Some locals don’t believe in killing mosquitoes, including the more rigorously by-the-book Buddhists. I asked a close Thai friend, who was a practicing Buddhist, about just this, and she attested that she didn’t kill them.

boy-and-book-and-mozzie-copy

Boy with book and mozzie, by Mr. Manop. This one could be autobiographical, as the artist was bit and contracted Malaria when he was 9.

I like Buddhism as much as the next guy – I’ve even done art with hints of mystical strains of Buddhism in it – but I veer far from the path when it comes to mozzies (henceforth, for convenience, I will intermittently employ the Aussie term, “mozzie”).

mozzie

It’s official

I’ve gone so far down the dark path of mozzie slaughter as to reward my Thai students with bonus points in English competitions for killing mosquitoes. They’d get 1 point for answering a question correctly, but they could also get an extra point for showing me a mozzie they’d killed.  I’ve seen many a student’s palm held up to me with a flattened mozzie corpse and a splat of blood on it.Was I asking them to do something against their beliefs (those that DO believe, that is)? According to Buddhism for Dummies if a mosquito or other “uninvited house guest” ventures inside your home it’s “bad karma” to kill it. You are supposed to capture it and release it outside (hoping not to get bit on the way?). On the other hand, after watching the video below, I get the impression that even the Dalai Lama isn’t so rigid on that particular precept.

Dalai Lama pantomiming flicking a mosquito (not “killing” a real one, as the title of the video misleadingly asserts!), in an interview with Bill Moyers.

In my defense I plead looking after the students’ health. I work in a school that includes some mosquito infested classrooms, and the students could take down a dozen or more during a lesson. If we don’t kill them when we have the opportunity, are we recklessly putting our fellow human beings at risk?

Eric Kuns, “Mandalay Monk and Spires” (2005). One of several works I’ve made which have Buddhist overtones. No mosquito.

Given my strong dislike for the mozzies, and no Buddhist compassion or sympathy for them whatsoever (they ARE the creature which causes the most human deaths), my initial reaction to the first mosquito painting I saw was to chuckle. “Hah, there’s a big-ass mosquito in that painting!” In the beginning, I assumed it must be about the lethal danger of the lowly mozzie, but it just didn’t really resonate that “danger” vibe. Then I thought it might be a joke. Baffled, I switched to looking at cases full of beetles, centipedes, walking sticks, and leaf bugs.

close-up-of-mozzie

Close-up of one of Mr. Manop’s Mozzie.

As I climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor, I noticed more mosquito paintings. They comprised a series! But why? And why were the mosquitoes all so big? And why didn’t their legs ever perch on what they’d landed on? The legs were always in the air and the mosquito was always in profile like a stencil. Was it just a gimmick?

girl-with-mozzie-on-lotus

Another over-sized mosquito. This one poised atop a budding lotus flower.

To fully appreciate the art we might need to understand the artist and his unique fascination with mosquitoes. The story starts in 1942, when Manop was just nine years old. According to a placard posted in the museum, Japanese soldiers had stationed themselves in a temple in Chiangmai. This was during World War 2, and U.S. fighter planes “came to shoot at the temple.” This is an interesting historical note, because I’d never imagined such a thing took place in this city. An internet search corroborates that the Japanese did indeed station themselves in CM, and had a group of some 50 planes situated at an airfield here. On March 24th, 1942, in a now celebrated surprise dawn attack, a squadron of four American “Flying Tiger” P-40’s descended on the airfield and destroyed thirteen Japanese bombers.

P-40

Artist, John D. Shaw’s interpretation of a P-40 “Flying Tiger” in the dawn attack on Japanese planes stationed on an airfield in Chiangmai (March 24, 1942). Incidentally, that’s one bad-ass, shark-faced plane!

Manop’s parents took him to a village in the foothills, 32 km from Chiangmai, where he would be safe should the hostilities escalate. Three months later, the nine-year old developed a severe case of malaria.

In the case of Malaria, a protozoan is the real culprit. The protozoans enter through the saliva of the female mosquito, multiply in the human liver, and then tens of thousands of them invade red blood cells where they further multiply. It’s not a picture of wholesome goodness at all.

mosquito-protozoan

Malarial mosquitoes give the gift of protozoans to the liver and red blood cells. Also apparently give you really big hands.

After the infection took hold, young Manop couldn’t eat, and suffered from fever, headache, and chills. There weren’t any hospitals or clinics in the village, and no medicine for malaria. Nearly 70% of the residents of the village were infected with malaria, and the child was witness to others dying off on a daily basis.

As the child’s condition worsened, he became emaciated and his eyes and spleen began to swell. Eventually he had difficultly breathing and lost sensation in his body. When he was near death he was brought to the local magic woman, and subjected to a home-brewed treatment worthy of medieval times. I’d rather not even recount it. You can read it in the victim’s own words in the photo of the placard below.

manop's-description

sure sounds like a fine line between sadistic torture,  sexual abuse, and treatment for malaria.

After a couple months of non-stop suffering and repeated subjection to grueling (and quite probably useless) treatments from the “magic woman” – the express methodology of which was to cause such excruciating pain in the patient that he’d sweat off the fever – the symptoms began to subside. He survived, and his gratitude has turned into a lifelong fascination of religious proportions with the very creatures that nearly killed him.

two-mozzies-with-a-tree-copy

17 years later, in 1956, when Manop was 26 years old, he got a job as “Malaria Investigator” with USOM (the “United States Operations Mission”) in Thailand. He worked with American scientists on a project to eradicate Malaria and in so doing became Thailand’s first expert on mosquitoes. Shortly thereafter he was joined in his work by a woman named Rampa, who shared his obsession with mosquitoes, and who he married.

fatefull-meeting

A Manop painting romanticizing the fateful meeting of him and his wife, Rampa, who apparently share not only a lifelong passion for mosquitoes, but for each other.

Mr. Manop went on to study law, but Mrs. Rattanarithikul faithfully carried the mosquito torch to it’s zenith. She went on to collect, catalog, and preserve hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes which are now a part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Her work has made it possible to identify 420 varieties of mosquito, including a couple dozen new ones. Probably her most important contribution in the field is to help distinguish the ten dangerous species out of the 450 varieties that inhabit Thailand.

the-couple

Dr. Rampa Rattanarithikul and her Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul.

In the end, what does Mr. Manop hope to achieve through his increasingly prolific mosquito paintings? No matter how much I enjoy his paintings, especially in the aggregate, I killed three mosquitoes during my dinner today in a local open-fronted restaurant. They were hovering threateningly around my table. When I look at the over-sized mosquito model in the picture above I can imagine the feeling of being “bit” by a mosquito. Once while on a canoeing trip in Lake Temagami, Ontario, I received over 100 bites. I had bites ringing my ankles, between my fingers, and bites upon bites (like Popeye’s muscles). I’m altogether too familiar with the distinctive pluck of the mosquito bite, which is so much like a miniature injection. But Mr. Manop is warping my mind. There’s a little pocket of my brain/consciousness that now associates them with his love of them, as conveyed in his paintings.

If you stop and read the placards that are propped up all over the museum, you can’t help notice Mr. Manop likes to talk about God and nature with utmost sincerity. These aren’t just mosquito paintings, they are deeply spiritual images, with a distinctly Buddhist message. They are about loving the unlovable and the enemy. Under Manop’s brush, the mosquitoes are an indelible, irreplaceable, and inexorable part of the integral whole of existence. In his eye, the mosquito is as the grain of sand in the mystical poem of William Blake: “Auguries of Innocence

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

All the beauty and complexity of the universe are contained within the body of the mosquito. To revile it is a mistake. To misunderstand it is to misunderstand oneself, and to hate it is to hate oneself. At least I think this is what the artist is getting at. And through his love of the universe as seen through intense focus on the lowliest and most deadly of human foes, I can vicariously appreciate mosquitoes more. But I still kill them.

In the end I’m a much bigger fan of the paintings themselves than the parasites they lovingly celebrate. And while Mr. Manop is not destined to be a pillar in any official Pantheon of Art History – his message is far too sincere, and his method too traditional to be taken seriously in a wryly cynical contemporary art scene – among his oeuvre are undoubtedly the most beautiful images of mosquitoes to be seen anywhere.


Several more paintings from the series:

mosquito-and-lotus

This mosquito is so beautiful I might forget to swat it!

mozzie-with-temple-and-church

mozzie-on-bird

mozzie-and-horse

detail

girl-mozzie-and-lotus


me-in-cm

Me at Wat Chedi Luang, Chiangmai, on the day I visited the Insect Museum and discovered the Mosquito paintings of Manop.

Mosquito museum homepage

BBC page about the museum

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12 thoughts on “The Mosquito Painter

  1. “I like Buddhism as much as the next guy” … I don’t know why, but that phrase made me laugh.
    I’m not psychologically gifted in any way, but it almost sounds as if this artist is imagining as mosquitoes the implements of that long ago anal piercing episode.
    More science education: balcony guppies fighting disease? I love those low-tech solutions! As my SO would say, that’s value-added.

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    1. Yeah, I love the low-tech solutions as well. And I especially love the fish solution, because I love fish. There are really a lot of people keeping them. Fish pots everywhere. Just a bit more of than and vigilance about dumping any collecting water, and the mosquitoes would be history. But spraying poison everywhere, ineffectually, is a business!

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      1. I was about to be a little nationalistic and superior (like I was trained to do in ‘Merican school) til I walked into the plume from a masked man spraying trees in the wind. Yuck! Lady bug release would have been the guppy equivalent in this situation but not manly enough, I guess.

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  2. I don’t know Eric. I think you missed an opportunity to photoshop a HUGE mozzie on your shoulder in your last picture!
    But seriously, excellent, informative and really good post. Cheers!!!

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  3. I copped a case of malaria when I was on Koh Chang (Ranong) in the early 90s. It wasn’t so bad really, though I nailed it with a barrage of anti-malarials within days of the first symptoms so maybe it would have got a lot worse. I also watched a bunch of Peace Corp volunteers who’d just come from the Philippines go through dengue fever hell when I was on Koh Phangan in the 80s. Needless to say any humming nearby sent me into paroxysms of swatting.

    Mosquito guppies might be OK in closed containers but in Australia their introduction into swamps and waterways has been catastrophic for the frog population. Just ’cause it’s ‘green’ don’t mean it’s good.

    And yeah, I used to hunt for food (and to exterminate feral cats and pigs) from my early teens to my mid-twenties but these days I hate to kill anything (I still hypocritically eat meat). I make a sole exception for mosquitoes, which I have always hunted down mercilessly, especially now as I have two beloved pet rabbits in the house (myxomatosis vaccine is illegal in Australia).

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