Maps: Informative or inform-art-ive?

Art is a passage, a pathway, and a route from one mind’s eye to another’s soul. It is a threshold. It is a geography of meaning. It maps a journey from one point to another point.

Cartographic maps have been a vital structure in civilisations since the 6th Century BC when the Greek philosopher Anaximander composed the world’s first maps, which acted merely as tools for presenting Anaximander’s travel knowledge (Mark, 2009). For Australia, 18th century British colonialism brought Captain Cook and with him the nation’s first official maps. These maps, which were taken back to Britain, informed that country of the geographic details about newly found Australia (Sanders, n.d.). Before colonisation, there were no authoritative physical maps, however there were many signs of early map making; Indigenous Australians hunted and occupied specific zones of land and sacred sites were recognised and protected. Although these customs were not recognised as mapping themselves, they did show the need for acknowledgement of geographic places, which Captain Cook practised more authoritatively when making maps of Australia. 

In our time, the boundaries of mapping and art are frequently blurred, creating a whole new genre—artistic mapping—which adds to the more recognised list of topographic, road, economic, political and social maps. Artistic maps are ones in which geographical information comes second to aesthetics and artistic ideas. Two examples of this ‘genre’ were displayed at the Gallery of Modern Art’s (GOMA’s) largest exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary works to date, ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home; Contemporary Art from Black Australia’. Curated by Bruce McLean, the Gallery dedicated seventy percent of its terrain to the exhibition. The exhibition investigated how Australian history, politics and living experiences have affected Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and the way art continues to allow them to express their feelings about their complex contemporary culture. 

Megan Cope’s work Fluid Terrain (2012) is a form of artistic mapping. The work, which is the largest the artist has ever created (Cope, Megan Cope homepage, 2013), displays a monumental, translucent map of Moreton Bay overlaid on one of the main windows at GOMA. The map features Cope’s signature style of dots, but perhaps the most intriguing trait of this work is the subtle change Cope has made to the map; she has cleverly exchanged Moreton Bay’s current suburb names for the original Aboriginal place names. With this simple text substitution, Cope is removing the colonisation of Moreton Bay and reasserting the region’s indigenous history. In doing so, she links the Moreton Bay landscape back to her own history and identity, being a Quandamooka woman from North Stradbroke Island. Cope’s work raises questions for the onlooker, such as, what do maps represent, what is language indicative of (Cope believes language is indicative of dominant culture), geomorphology (how land forms change around us), memories and how we see ourselves within significant geographic places (Cope, 2013). Contemplating Fluid Terrain, one is momentarily transported into a parallel world, in which all that is familiar is upended. In effect, Cope is confronting the viewer with the same kind of linguistic and territorial displacement that Indigenous Australians have experienced since 1788.

This interest in territory was carried across other works in the show. The exhibition was arranged into three sections and one of these sections, ‘My Country’, presented the viewer with a series of paintings arranged to look like a regional Australian map, with each work installed according to the location of its origin. The abstract map allowed each painting to take the place of topographical markers in order to show the diversity of visual and artistic languages that Indigenous art comprises. Furthermore, by assembling the works in this pattern, GOMA brings together the multiple remote aboriginal communities that created each work, as one nation. Although the majority of the works do not relate directly to mapping, they all relate to the ‘physical country’, the form of the artists’ heartland and the basis of all maps. One work displayed within this ‘regional map’ is Mimpi (2011), created by the artist, Wakartu Cory Surprise, from the Walmajarri people. The work is a square painting with bright and earthy colours densely streaked to form a series of horizontal lozenges divided by channels of white paint. Surprise’s work relates directly to mapping, as the painting was developed from her travels in the Kimberley and represents important landmarks from these journeys, such as waterholes and rock formations (GOMA, 2012). Placed within the overall hang, Mimpi is thus a map within a map. 

Yet, in each of these map works, is it map or art, or both? The works in fact blur both these categories. Each work has uniquely incorporated the mapping genre to help convey the artistic message and expression. In addition, the artists’ use of mapping conventions allows the works to present viewers with questions of place and identity. Each person travelling through the gallery was informed by these works, crossed thresholds of social and political understanding and ultimately arrived at a different viewpoint from their initial thoughts. The artists in My Country know that the essential purpose of any good map is to get you to where you should be. In this case, the works get viewers on the route to having a deeper, more complex understanding of our country and its cultural history.


Megan Cope, Fluid Terrain (installation view), 2012. Vinyl on glass, Site-specific commission for ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2012. Photograph Mark Sherwood, QAGOMA. © Megan Cope.

Wakartu Cory Surprise, Mimpi, 2011. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 119.5 x 239cm. Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery. Collection Queensland Art Gallery. © Cory Surprise/Licensed by Viscopy, 2014.


Bloxham, A., ‘World’s First Map of Australia Goes on Sale’, The Telegraph, 15 October, 2011. Retrieved from
Cope, M., ‘Megan Cope’, GOMA, 30 May 2013.
Cope, M., Megan Cope homepage, 2013. Retrieved from Megan Cope:
QAGOMA, ‘Wakartu Cory Surprise’, 2012. Retrieved from
Mark, J.J., ‘Anaximander’, Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 2 September 2009. Retrieved from
Sanders, J., ‘Captain James Cook and his Voyages’, Project Endeavour, (n.d.). Retrieved from