The works gathered in this collection ask: how can we address geography and cartography through the material, the hidden, and the abstract? As theorist, writer, and professor Katherine McKittrick calls it, these artists approach the map as “a terrain of struggle,”1 laying bare the histories that have contributed to constructions of land and space thus far. 

Artists Benny Andrews and Renee Cox incorporate the globe as a symbol into their works, expanding and challenging narratives of globalization, freedom, and liberty. Andrews’s oil and collage Composition (Study for Trash) (1971) depicts a white woman posed as Lady Liberty sitting on top of a globe. The globe houses an outline of the United States of America, where three Black men tug an unseen object across the surface of the map. A crowd of onlookers pulls apart the curtain of the proscenium stage on which the scene takes place, exposing the dissonance between performed freedom and its violent reality. Cox’s silver gelatin print Atlas (1995) presents a nude Black man carrying a globe in the likes of the Greek Titan Atlas. The man holds the globe between his two palms, positioning the continent of Africa at the center of the composition. Both Atlas and Composition demand that the histories of labor, slavery, and colonialism be forefronted in critical dialogues about re-presentations of global histories and approaches to cartographic techniques. 

Radcliffe Bailey’s mixed-media work Mason Dixon (2009) addresses the history of the Mason-Dixon line, which marked the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, separating slave states from free states. A photo of a young Black man in a suit and tie overlaps this demarcation, his body split between the two states. Taking the familiar form of a flag, the work positions the history of slavery and the division of the North and South as infrastructural components of United States history, mapping, and identity.  

For some artists, materials and processes speak to different types of geographies and expanding approaches to cartography. Robert Pruitt’s installation For Whom the Bell Curves (2004) traces the paths of slave ships taken during the transatlantic slave trade. The artist explores the enduring legacy of slavery and racism on contemporary thinking—the title refers to The Bell Curve, a book from 1994 by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray that attempts to draw a connection between intelligence and race. The process of superimposition drives Julie Mehretu’s 2D work Entropia (review) (2004). The artist abstracts an architectural diagram of a cityscape to reveal the limits of cartographic measurement, further highlighting the energetic dynamism and layers of history in urban landscapes. 

In Otobong Nkanga’s photographic diptych Alterscape Stories: Spilling Waste (2006), the artist situates herself as both creator and destructor of the environment. In showing the artist pouring blue liquid from a plastic container onto an artificial landscape across multiple panels, the work speaks about water importation into the Canary Islands; in the vein of environmental destruction and regeneration, Nkanga expresses the relationship between map-making and humans as a cyclical and durational process. 

Cartography was organized by June Kitahara, Publications Fellow at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

[1] Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

1 / 5

Alterscape Stories: Spilling Waste

2 / 5

Mason Dixon

3 / 5

For Whom the Bell Curves

4 / 5

Composition (Study for Trash)

5 / 5

Entropia (review)

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