We no longer need reminders that “the map is not the territory,” but we may need to be reminded that the map reveals as much or more about the world in which the map was made as about the territory it purports to depict.
“Mapping Place: Africa Beyond Paper,” curated by Kenneth Knoespel, Teri Williams, and Yves Abrioux, is on view through June 6 at the Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking at Georgia Tech as their contribution to the year-long “Africa Atlanta” project. It is intended as a conceptual prelude to “Kongo Across the Waters,” which opens at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum on May 17. (The Royal Museum for Central Africa, founded by King Leopold II as a repository for the art of Belgium’s African colonies, has loaned much of the work for that exhibition of Kongo culture and its survivals in the African diaspora, and one Kongo object for “Mapping Place.”)
We have often viewed images of Africa in unthinking ignorance, and the intent of this small show is to stir the viewer’s imagination in hopes of creating a wish to remedy that lack of knowledge. Introducing that theme, William Kentridge’s collages of black-paper-cutout silhouettes laid across antique maps are metaphors for those moments in history in which maps claim to reveal realities that actually remain concealed in shadow.
The exhibition layout makes it logical to start with the most recent maps, half-century-old documents from the waning days of colonialism. A 1958 Mobil Oil map of the Belgian Congo, piquantly placed next to a motor club’s driving guide to Congolese destinations, has been marked up with handwritten names of ethnic groups, information that motorists had no need to know; these significant additions were made by the Austrian-born Congo scholar Herbert Weiss, who used the map in his travels studying aspects of the movement for Congolese independence.
That map is reproduced again on the wall, adjacent to a vintage map of French Equatorial Africa, a map of air routes within and beyond the Belgian Congo, and a 1972 economic map of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Deliberately raising more questions than they answer, these maps are juxtaposed to suggest, among other things, the links to the global economy to which the raw materials of the colonies and postcolonial states were—and still are—bound.
The image of Africa presented by a 350-year-old atlas brings us to the birth of that global economy in the Age of Exploration. Its geographic accuracy and detail stands in stark contrast to the vague delineations found in a 1540 reconstruction of Greco-Roman antiquity’s view of Africa in Ptolemy’s Geographia. The same level of acute detail is evident in a 1680 map from Amsterdam and a similar 1702 Nürnberg map that presumably cribs from its precursor.
What strikes me about these maps (and since the exhibition encourages visitors to tell their own stories, I feel entitled) is how unexpectedly full they are. There is no terra incognita; both natural features and political boundaries are precisely rendered. The map in the atlas is flanked by detailed portraits of African peoples—and an adjacent 1695 French wall map is even more image-filled—thus implying a real interest in the continent’s diversity but also serving to express the mapmakers’ confidence in their knowledge of the world. The overall implication is that Europeans knew the names of all the governmental entities and the shapes of all the lakes and mountains on the African continent, something that was unlikely despite the extensive information provided by trade routes—not least the trade in slaves from the interior of the continent.
The maps from the late 19th century are muddier affairs. An Edinburgh-produced map of 1882 shows established but still tentative-looking colonial arrangements along the coasts, whereas the same company’s map from 1888 shows the initial results of the Scramble for Africa and the division of the continent at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, with one conspicuous difference being the colliding colonial claims surrounding Leopold II’s Congo State (not yet, to this mapmaker anyway, the singularly misnamed Congo Free State). There are still large gaps where the heavy hand of European colonialism has not yet reached, and in some places the borders are a bit liquid. We are firmly in the era in which writers like G. A. Henty produced boys’ stories in which intrepid explorers cast light on “the Dark Continent.”
“Dark for whom?” we now ask—and this is where the exhibition introduces a distinctly African way of mapping different spaces. The people living there knew very well what territory they inhabited, and a great deal else besides. A Luba ritual object known as a lukasa board contains patterns that convey a geography and cosmology to those who know how to use them as mnemonic devices. As Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts note dryly in a wall-text quotation from their book on Luba art and traditions, “Each lukasa elicits some or all of this information, but the narration varies with the knowledge and oratory skill of the reader.” We are in a situation in which relevant knowledge is encoded in a system of symbols that depends on individual memory and storytelling to communicate the lists of kings, facts of clan migrations, and other traditions on which rulers depend, and which are presented by members of the Mbudye secret society for whom the lukasa serves as a sort of conceptual map.
This is where Georgia Tech’s Graduate Program in Digital Media takes the exhibition interactive with the Digital Lukasa. Visitors are invited to encode and tell their own personal stories with the Lukasa Table, designed by Alexandra Mazalek and Paul Clifton. Visitors construct a set of symbols from which to tell their own stories by dragging digital beads across the tabletop to a circle of icons symbolizing “man,” “woman,” “home,” and so forth.
This is a way not only of giving a voice to the African ways of mapping that go unrecognized in the maps created by Europeans, but of acknowledging that those maps too are mute without the implicit stories told by the mapmakers. I have already incorporated more information into this review than is given in the wall text or catalogue, and there is much else about which I have done no more than speculate.
Maps, in that sense, are our own lukasa boards, markers from which we glean mostly as much information as we can bring to them from other sources. The map allows us to arrange and make sense of a disparate body of prior knowledge; if that fragmentary knowledge is sufficiently flawed, the map can redirect us … but far less than we like to believe.
Dr. Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications.