Centuries ago, when large tracts of the earth’s land mass and oceans were still unexplored by Europeans, cartographers from the continent took to populating these unknown places with mythical creatures, such as dragons and sea monsters. These illustrations, which seem quaint to modern eyes, worked as shorthand for the unknown and would sometimes be accompanied by explanatory texts such as HIC SVNT LEONES (here are lions) in Roman maps. A popular code for “unknown territory” were the words “here be dragons”. This phrase, which was only ever used on one medieval European map known to modern historians, has become, over the years, a punchline that is used to emphasise how far we have travelled from a time that is still referred to as the Dark Ages.
In her show at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery, art historian and curator Meera Menezes uses the phrase “Here be dragons” in a way that drains it of this condescension and, instead, imbues it with the sense of mystery and wonder that it once conveyed.
Maps were mostly recognised as navigational tools used by travellers to find their way. As Menezes points out, a map can be much more since it offers the possibility of connecting ideas that may, otherwise, seem to have no relation with each other. “Just take a map of India and turn it upside down. How would it feel to look at Kanyakumari as your north?” says Menezes. “How we make a map
shows how we view the world. Could we create a map that does not look at landscapes and political boundaries? Could we create a map of the stars or of ideas? These were questions that I wanted to explore in this show,” she adds.
The exhibition, “Here Be Dragons and Other Coded Landscapes”, features works by 11 artists and stretches the concept of cartography into territories as diverse as memory, sense, pain and time. Even when traditional cartographic notions such as national borders make an appearance, they serve to undermine the orthodox definition and use of a map, which is to present a fixed, unchallenged idea of the world.
Raj Jariwala’s series juxtaposes the cartographic map and satellite map of different countries to see how they correspond to each other. These watercolour and pencil works show the wide gulf that exists between the abstract quality of national boundaries as they appear on maps and the actual boundaries as defined by the use of each country’s satellites. The abstract nature of the marks we draw on a map — showing streets or national boundaries — is further emphasised in Zarina Hashmi’s A Map Without a City. Here is what looks like an actual map, complete with streets and plots of land and, yet, the existence of the map does not automatically mean that the city shown in it also exists.
Other works venture into the terra incognita of the human mind and experience, drawing connections between seemingly unrelated ideas to come up with startling new readings of the word “map”. Meditation on Roots by Anju Dodiya examines the idea of the family tree as a map of our roots. Her Sea in My Head is a “sensory map” that charts how we interact with what we see, smell, hear and touch. Madhvi Subrahmanian’s Mappa Mundi works, made with ceramic and gold leaf, play with the idea of how the maps we carry in our heads are shaped according to our personal experiences rather than by actual maps and how they get distorted by memory.
One may be tempted to view maps as objects that impart neutral information, but “Here Be Dragons and Other Coded Landscapes” shows how misjudged such a position would be. As Menezes points out, anyone who has ever made a map has done so while projecting their own ideas of the world on it, whether it was medieval European cartographers or the Hindu and Jain cosmological maps that drew on Indian myths. “Moreover, exploring cartography as a theme takes on currency now when we are seeing so much strife, border conflicts and displacement of human beings. It makes you question the very idea of borders and identities, and how they are as much about exclusion as they are about inclusion,” she says.