1 May 2024

Artist Lily Duval on her love of insects and efforts to conserve them

From Nine To Noon, 11:35 am on 1 May 2024

Artist and writer Lily Duval's latest book tells the stories of the insects of Aotearoa, in the hopes of changing attitudes towards them. 

It begins with a confession: she's not a lifelong insect lover herself, in fact she had to overcome a fear of bugs in her 20s.

An endemic species of fungus moth (Lysiphragma epixyla).

An endemic species of fungus moth (Lysiphragma epixyla). Photo: Lily Duval

Duval holds a Master of Arts, exploring 'cultural entomology', dissecting how we talk about, and represent, insects in culture, and as she calls it, their "PR problem". 

Six Legged Ghosts pays homage to the many living bugs, but also the many that have quietly gone extinct, and is illustrated with her own watercolour paintings.

Insects have long fascinated artists, she tells Nine to Noon.

“They seem to emerge, at least in the Western tradition, in medieval manuscripts, they were sort of marginalia, decorative borders, and they jumped into the centre of the page in the early 1500s with a really famous painting by a German painter of a stag beetle.

“He seems to have inspired a lot of people so there were a lot of replica stag beetles emerging… through the Enlightenment, insects were an object of fascination for scholars of that time.”

Caterpillar of the Kumara moth

Caterpillar of the Kumara moth Photo: Lily Duval

By the 19th century things had become more static, she says.

They start becoming taxonomic, they're kind of symmetrical. There's a beauty to it for sure, in terms of their incredible symmetry and the patterning and their colours.

“But for me, they started to lose a little bit of their life.”

And I think we still see that a lot today, you'll find a lot of bug posters, where they're kind of like a pinned drawer in a museum almost aesthetic.

She wanted to break away from that when she took up the brush for her Six-legged Ghosts project.  

“I did do a couple of paintings like that myself. And then I realised I was essentially painting the insect in death, rather than painting it in life.”

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Photo: Lily Duval

So, who are the six-legged ghosts?

“There's estimates that we might have lost around 44,000 species of an insect in recent times, but we really only have records for a really small handful of those.

“They’re kind of the silent vanishing that's happening.”

She hopes New Zealanders will embrace the book.

“By and large, New Zealanders are really interested in the natural world. We're proud of our unique environment. So, I would hope that it's going to grab those people and just make them think a little bit more about some of the other creatures that we share the country with.”

Six-legged Ghosts: the insects of Aotearoa

Photo: Lily Duval