Art Project: Tropical Tales

Artwork by Eimear Kavanagh; Raju and the Sand fly

Artwork by Eimear Kavanagh

Tropical Tales was a cross arts project that I developed together with Bisakha Sarker, the idea was to collect of stories from LSTM (liverpool School Tropical Med) and work with a creative team of established artists (painters, poets, musicians, dance and spoken word performers) to produce resource materials related to tropical diseases, some of this material was used by local school children and selected material will be published as story cards and innovative digital mediaBisakha Sarker


The project was funded mainly by Liverpool City Council and NHS Primary Care Trust.

Chaturangan headed by Bisakha Sarker will use this wealth of stories to create artistic materials. This project was  intended as an opportunity for the LSTM community to become involved in a locally based artistic project that encourages the sharing of experience from around the world, through music, dance, storytelling, poetry.

The project started with an evening of storytelling on the theme of health and wellbeing and tropical connections. There were break out groups each led by an artist or a scientist where people exchanged their stories.

In developing the final story cards, the artistic team worked collaboratively in consultation with LSTM and publishers Mantra Lingua to record the work produced and develop the story cards.

Bisakha brought really great set of artists including:

Debjani Chatterjee
Jagjit Chuhan
Chris Davies
Dave Ward
Eimear Kavanagh

Eimear did the artwork, I gave her some scanning electron microscope images of the sandfly gut and she was able to produce some great images of Raju in the gut fighting Leishmania. The narratives for a sand fly -leishmania story in english, spanish and mandarin chinese and arabic.  This artwork is presented  as a sheet with numbers for each picture; the story is on a talking pen, recorded in four languages. The pen is placed on the relevant number and relevant part of the story is activated via the pen speaker.
This story was based on my work on the sand fly that transmits the parasite causing the disease leishmaniasis. The story is set in India where the sand fly Phlebotomus argentipes is the main vector of the deadly Leishmania donovani that causes visceral leishmaniasis (known in India as Kala Azar). I always had this dream in my head imaging what is would be like to ride on the back of a Leishmania parasite (yes…).  I linked this up with Jonah and the fish/whale folk tale and this led to the basic story about a boy called Raju and his sister.


Jonah and the giant fish in the Jami’ al-tawarikh(c. 1400)

Sister Anu gets bitten by an infected sand fly and eventually gets leishmaniasis. They can’t afford the drug treatment and Raju wanders off into the forest where he falls asleep and dreams about being eaten by a sand fly. Inside the gut of the sand fly Raju fights with the leishmania parasites until the sand fly feeds on a plant and the plant sap kills the leishmania. Raju eventually wakes up, remembers his dream and goes and collects some plant herb that he dream’t about the sand fly eating and  then uses the herb to create a concoction that eventually cure Anu of her leishmaniasis.  The story has some scientific grounding:-

  • Drug treatments are expensive and toxic..things called pentavalent antimonials that have been around since the 1930’s but there are now newer drugs such as liposomal amphotericin B (in case you wanted to know liposomes are used as a way to deliver the drug effectively into cells).
  • Sand flies don’t just feed on blood, in fact its only the female takes an occasional bloodmeal; perhaps twice in her short life. The rest of the time  she and he feed on plant sugars.  And research has shown that some sand flies will feed on plant sap that will actually kill the parasites in the sand fly gut (see footnote), this is a potential way  of controlling the spread of the parasite by encouraging plants that sand flies will feed on.  Also lots of research has been done on whether plant compounds can be developed as anti leishmania drugs.  A successful plant compound artemesinin is already being  developed as an antimalarial drug, but none so far for leishmaniasis.


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