Since my mind is focused on maps, I was excited to hear that there was a mapping exhibition at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The exhibition is very popular and you have to book your time in advance, which made planning very easy. A peaceful but slow four-hour train trip got us to Canberra with a few free hours before the exhibition, spent at the Insurgence exhibition by Indigenous art collective proppaNOW at Old Parliament House (which seems to have disappeared from their website, sorry no link). I’m familiar with most of the artists and their work, it was extra enjoyable to see them in this setting – Old Parliament House is in direct dialogue with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an on-going – and often controversial – activist installation pursuing visibility and political rights.
Some of the works involved maps in one way or another, but I was particularly excited to see the work of Megan Cope, the artist I was least familiar with, and which consisted of beautiful oval maps depicting lands after a future flood. My photos don’t do the work justice.
Canaipa and Myora, both 2012, are maps of places in Moreton Bay in Queensland with Aboriginal place names overlaid and showing them as they would be after a future five-metre flood. The artist’s stamens beside the works reads: I want people to see themselves within the landscape and then be challenged by the duality of the other history that existed prior and still exists there today.
For someone visiting Canberra in search of maps and inspiration, coming across this work was a fantastic reminder that time and subjectivity play a large part in mapping, whether they are acknowledged or not.
Other works included Richard Bell’s video piece Scratch an Aussie, which I’ve seen maybe ten times and which still cracks me up and hurts me. A large text work by Vernon Ah Kee filled the front windows of the building with a clear message: austracism on one side of the entrance, and this foul deed shall smell above the earth from Shake’speare’s “Dogs of War” speech in Julius Caesar on the other. Powerful stuff.
Anyone who has a chance to see the work of the proppaNOW artists, either individually or as a collective, check them out.
At the National Library of Australia, the Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia exhibition was in full swing, and very popular, every time slot was fully booked on the day we visited. Mapping our World is a comprehensive survey of early world maps (from a Western perspective) that traces the European discovery and charting of Australia, culminating in the “General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia”, created by Matthew Flinders and published in 1822.
There were a lot of things I loved about this exhibition. The maps were gorgeous, each one a feast of detail to be lingered over and savoured. I love the story of the mapping of Australia, and it was wonderfully illustrated here, bits of coast appearing and disappearing for a couple of centuries, slowly extending, solidifying into position and eventually joining up to make an island continent. The Great South Land was invented and imagined before it was known, and seeing this tentative emergence makes it almost feel as though it was being dreamed into existence… as perhaps it was.
Which brings me to my only criticism of the exhibition, the inclusion of a handful of Aboriginal maps, mostly created with/for early twentieth-century sort-of anthropologist Daisy Bates. This felt tokenistic and did neither the exhibition, which had its own coherence and structure and story, nor the mapping traditions in Aboriginal cultures, which are broad and rich and complex, any favours. It would have been interesting to see an extended scope beyond the western, but it really wasn’t necessary, and it wasn’t necessary to plop a few Indigenous maps in either.
Aside from this, I found the exhibition moving and poetic, with much food for thought for my own project. It’s a story of the illustration of the limits of the world, from when the world had limits.
The exhibition also included instruments such as astrolabes and chronometers, and technical information about latitude and longitude and the difficulties of explorers and cartographers in piecing together a world experienced in bits.
It was not possible to take photographs in the exhibition, so I have resorted to the internet for the image below to illustrate this post.
There were four other highlights of the trip to Canberra: the mandatory visit to James Turrell’s Within Without….
… the sculpture garden at the NGA…
… the accidental discovery of “maps” on the hood of a rusting car…
… and and the gorgeousness of the NLA windows, which will be the subject of their own post.