Alison Turnbull was invited to visit Chocó in February 2016 to research moths and butterflies, to make a new group of drawings and spend time away from her London studio. She was awarded a Joanna Drew Travel Bursary, which also allowed her to travel to Bogotá and Medellín, where she met entomologists from the Universidad Nacional. In August 2017 Alison will return to Chocó with Blanca Huertas, curator of butterflies at London’s Natural History Museum to develop a collaborative project based on the moths and butterflies of the rainforest.
The Zone of Solitude
By Alison Turnbull
The plan of the city is an ordered grid. Yet, it is a grid so fluid, so malleable and so open to distortion that it allows for diagonal interruptions and blind alleys; it allows for losing your way and for getting lost entirely.
In the zone of Solitude – a district in the heart of a city where order and unruliness constantly overlap – the houses date from the mid twentieth century. They share many features with European modernist architecture: flat roofs, concrete walls, metal window frames. But they have been carefully and judiciously adapted to their habitat, in which graffiti jostles with decorative mosaics. Wrought iron grills cover windows, doorways and gardens in a proliferation of grids, circles and diamond shapes. These patterns are not simply ornamental – they are there to deter predators. Form follows function. At the same time, the white tracery of the ironwork resembles nothing so much as the delicate markings on a butterfly’s wing, also there to warn away intruders.
I have travelled to the forest to spend time on my own and to find moths and butterflies. In the garden base at the forest’s edge, I make drawings on lined and gridded papers purchased in the city. I work at a wooden table whose legs have been cut to render it perfectly level on the sloping floor; it’s a bit like being on a boat. Moisture in the air causes the paper to undulate and the grids to distort. My attempts at order, carefully drawn circles and coloured bands, serve only to highlight the unpredictable vastness of the forest just behind me, full of green noise and green darkness.
Moths arrive on the nights when wind and rain don’t keep them away from the makeshift light-trap and in the afternoons there is a steady stream of day-flying swallowtails migrating southwards along the beach. Butterflies are everywhere in the garden – longwings and peacocks, cattlehearts and jewelmarks. In the forest they are more elusive and harder to spot. One day a large blue Morpho escapes my net and settles on a banana leaf. It keeps its wings resolutely closed, jealously guarding its iridescent blue interior. The patterns on its wings make me think of the houses in the zone of Solitude and I wonder about the lives and intimacies they contain.
Returning home, I visit the Lepidoptera collection in the museum of natural history. In a temperature-controlled environment, neatly pinned in serried rows, butterfly specimens – millions of them! – fill wooden drawers in grey metal cabinets. They have been amassed by naturalists and explorers, who would capture and classify the beauty of far away places in order to make it their own. I am searching for the species I have seen in the garden and the forest on the other side of the world. As in the forest and the city, it’s easy to get lost here too – in a taxonomic web of tribe and genus, species and family.
The pins that fix the butterflies in place also hold labels that detail the provenance and date of the specimens; without this data the collection would be of little worth scientifically. As I find examples of the species I’m looking for, an interesting pattern emerges. The species that I observed in the garden have been collected in places throughout the Neo-tropics. Those that I saw in the forest have all been collected in one place – they are endemic to the very forest where I have just been, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. So it is here in the museum, thousands of miles away, that I begin to understand just what robust bio-indicators these beautiful, vulnerable creatures are – and how unique and precious is their forest habitat.
With thanks to Klidier Josué Gonzalez and Osneyder Valoy Palacio in Bogotá, Andrés Cáceres and Jorge Gil in Guachalito and Simon Elvins and Blanca Huertas in London