Making maps into art

A new exhibition aims to put cartography on the artistic map

Cartography – the study and practice of making maps – might seem more of a science than an art, but an exhibition at Zayed University aims to change that.

In today’s world of Google and GPS, the idea of using a map may seem antiquated. In fact, younger generations might never have even used a paper map – or be able to appreciate their importance.

But a new Abu Dhabi exhibition is bringing together a collection of contemporary art that explores the virtues and qualities of maps to get you thinking about them in a different way. Cartographies: Mapping
Intersections and Counterpoints will be on display until February 19 at Zayed University.

Curators Catherine Bebout and Karen Oremus are both fascinated by maps. Karen says, ‘As systems of organisations, they not only function to calculate distance and geographical boundaries, but also depict a record of histories both real and imagined.’

The exhibition explores properties of maps that often go unnoticed, such as how they can reflect social, political and cultural attitudes and beliefs. When cartographers play with the size of words or names of physical places, for example, they add to or take away from the importance of that location.

The show features works by 15 artists from around the world, each of whom use maps as their starting point, before going on to explore the subject matter in their own way.

Some notable works on display include prints by Catherine Bebout, which use charts and diagrams to ‘map’ the human figure – commenting on the complexity of humans – and giving new light to the idea that maps provide direction.

Banu Colak’s pixelated maps combine drawing, texture and visual properties of maps such as roads and bodies of water. Banu explains, ‘The works enable the viewer to deconstruct concepts of home versus transnational communities through a multi-layered reading,’ meaning that the visual cue given by a map can reference places as familiar as your home, and as foreign as a different place and time.’

Another featured artist, Alison Hildreth, explores natural and manmade terrains in her investigative maps. The works are inspired by her reading and empirical research about nature and environmental science. To the viewer, the dark, twisted drawings are a cross between scientific renderings and fantastical fictional illustrations.

Approaching the subject from a conceptual vantage point, in Naz Shahrokh’s series of Artist Palette pieces, she uses various objects to create simple sculptures that possess deeper meanings; at first glance, they aren’t what they appear to be. One such sculpture uses spools of thread as part of the palette. The colours are reminiscent of paint in a palette but there is a map – perhaps drawing a connection between the way thread can be used to track travels on a map.

In ‘Mapping Non-Accidental Intersections,’ by Marco Sosa, the artist attempts to connect physical locations with their ephemeral qualities by combining technical map drawings with images such as fallen leaves, which may be present one day and gone the next.

In addition to curating the exhibition, Karen Oremus is also showing her work, which uses the idea of maps to comment on a personal struggle – her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Using the ideas of physical space and distance, she comments on the emotional gap she felt between herself and her mother.

Karen and Catherine hope that the exhibition will challenge viewers’ conceptions of maps and cartography, and develop a new appreciation for these cultural documents. Karen says, ‘Our intent is to present a collaborative atlas of metaphoric associations from within each of the artists represented that similarly take the viewer on a journey of exploration and discovery.’
Cartographies: Mapping Intersections and Counterpoints runs until February 19 at Al Fanoun Gallery, Gate 2, F6 Building, Zayed University Abu Dhabi, Khalifa City B. Viewing is by appointment only. Email

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