Spring has finally begun which means butterflies will be fluttering around, bees will be buzzing by and beetles will be scurrying around. But have you ever stopped to think about how they’ve impacted art and culture?
That’s what New Mexico State University anthropology master’s student Rachel Cover will be showcasing during her exhibition at the University Museum in Kent Hall, “Entomomania: Insects in Art and Culture.”
The exhibit will focus on specific insects and how they have influenced our culture, world and how we interact with the natural world. One of those ways is with stories, specifically stories that are borderline prehistory. One of the insects that Cover focuses on is the jade cicada in early Chinese ideology.
“The jade cicada is a beautiful insect with clear wings and big eyes and they don’t have anything to bite you with. I’ve just always found them so interesting and even more so after I learned about one of their cultural stories,” Cover said. “During the Han Dynasty, which was around 220 A.D., early Chinese religions would use the jade cicadas in funeral burials. They would place the carved jade piece inside the mouth of the dead like a tongue depressor. Certain cicadas, like the periodical cicada, emerge up to 18 years later from their nymph stage underground. Early Chinese thought to mimic this behavior in their afterlife.”
Another insect’s story she learned of was of the silk moth’s cocoons, and how they were used by indigenous Mexican dancers, the Mayo.
“The Mayos, an indigenous group from Mexico, would use the silk moth cocoons as rattles. They would take the cocoons, take the insect out of it and put sand or rock pebbles inside, tie some together with a string and beads and then wrap them around their feet while they would dance and they would make rattling noises,” Cover said. “I’m going to have both the rattles from the University Museum’s collection and the actual silk moth from the Arthropod Museum’s collection on display in the exhibition.”
Rather than just house the insects in glass cases to be displayed, Cover spent 10 months macro photographing the insects to give people a closer look at them, something she taught herself to do along the way. She will have 21 macro photos of 15 varying types of insects including a bee, beetle, butterfly and an ant that will measure about 45 by 42 inches.
“Macro photography gets you up close and you can examine the insects in different ways,” Cover said. “It did take me a while to set up though. I had to photograph one of the beetles four times and everyone else needed a few shots. When I first printed the posters, even at a relatively high resolution, they were still pixelated. I had to shoot them at 2,000 pixels and had to go up to 5,000 until they looked good and then had to decide what parts of the insects I wanted to focus on and which parts could be blurred.”
Cover has a bachelor’s in art history and previously helped assist the University Art Gallery, which is what inspired her master’s project from her time there. She realized the art gallery had collaborated with other museums on campus and was inspired to continue the process of collaboration with the Arthropod Museum and use their insects to discuss stories about insects in human culture with the University Museum, which houses mostly ethnographic material.
“I wanted to give the Arthropod Museum a little more time to shine since they don’t have an exhibition space in their museum, so typically only researchers see what is actually housed in their collection,” Cover said. “I don’t know how much of the student body actually knows what’s here especially if you’re in a different department. Coming from the art department and now the Anthropology Department, I don’t know if I would have ever come here if I didn’t do this project.”
Cover hopes that with her exhibition she is able to bring more fields together to show that in the end, they’re not that different, and everyone can be inspired through both art and science.
“Even though you may see yourself as an entomologist, these insects also have a story to tell through art,” Cover said. “By getting the science and art world to come together there’s a chance of seeing an insect or art in a different way. Maybe they’ll see that their field isn’t totally unrelated. I want to see how we can come together with our different collections and all the possibilities that open up.”
Cover’s exhibit opened April 4 at the University Museum located at 1280 E. University Ave. and will run until early September. For more information contact the museum at 575-646-5161.