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Author: David William Cohen
Title: The Map: a representation of Africa
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Passages
1992
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Source: The Map: a representation of Africa
David William Cohen

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 8-9, 1992
Author Biography: David William Cohen is in Anthropology and History at Northwestern, and is Director of the Program of African Studies.
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4761530.0003.007

The Map: A Representation of Africa

DAVID WILLIAM COHEN

On November 8, 1991, in a letter to me at the Program of African Studies, the Director of the National Museum of African Art, Sylvia H. Williams, and the Associate Director for Collections and Research, Roy Sieber, provided a photo of the map of Africa mounted in the Museum. The first request for this map was turned down on September 10, 1991, as was a second request on October 7, 1991. With the November 8, 1991 letter, the Museum provided not only the map requested and its present caption, but also three additional maps which "are used to place the Benin Kingdom in historical perspective" within the context of the Museum's exhibition "Royal Benin Art in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art." As well, permission to publish the maps and caption in Passages was granted.

According to the Museum's letter, the maps were designed in 1987, with credit to the artist David Ravitch and photographers Jeffrey Ploskonka and James Young.

Every day hundreds of visitors to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., pass through the gallery displaying materials from Benin. They may notice and inspect a large map of Africa located just to the left of the entranceway. Indeed, the architecture of the area around the entrance to the Benin gallery, along with large scale of the map, encourages a viewing of the map from a considerable distance.

From such a distance the map looks to be a reproduction and enlargement of a seventeenth or eighteenth century map of Africa. As one moves closer and examines the detail, one is jarred by the possibility—or certainty—that the maker of this map played with considerable license in deploying names and illustrations onto the map from different periods. The observer may be bemused, or confused, by the conflation of diverse historical elements within one geographical illustration. One's sense of the African past is engaged and challenged by the intermingling of an intense historicizing image—that Africa has a past and here is one geographical representation of that past—with the deformation and reconstitution of historical "knowledge" through the anachronistic and ahistorical textual elements imposed on the map's surface.

In approaching the map in early 1988 a visitor would have noted an explanatory caption in small print next to the map:

"This map is a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn between the 15th and 19th centuries. During that period, the real geography of the interior of the continent was largely unknown. The map captures some of the excitement and unintentional whimsy of early representations of the 'mysterious' continent. It also reflects the perception of the continent during the period of European contact with the Benin Kingdom, whose art is exhibited in the adjacent gallery. The coastline, the first area explored, is relatively accurate, but the inland sources of the rivers remain somewhat fanciful. The sources of the Nile, for example, are shown farther south than the river's actual headwaters. Animals range from the fantastic to the scientifically accurate. Many of the mountain ranges are imaginary. Art objects from a number of early traditions, including that of Benin, are illustrated, although most were not known to European travelers."

In 1991 visitors could still view the map as they approached the entrance to the Benin gallery, but the caption had been modestly changed in the interval, the additions noted here by italics, the deletions by brackets:

"This map is a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn by European cartographers between the 15th and 19th centuries. During that period, the real geography of the interior of the continent was largely unknown. The map captures some of the excitement and unintentional whimsy of early representations of the 'mysterious' continent. [It also reflects the perception of the continent during the period of European contact with the Benin Kingdom, whose art is exhibited in the adjacent galley.] The coastline, the first area explored, is relatively accurate, but the inland sources of the rivers remain somewhat fanciful. The sources of the Nile, for example, are shown [farther] further south than the river's actual headwaters. Animals [range] vary in appearance from the fantastic to the scientifically accurate. Many of the mountain ranges are imaginary. Art objects from a number of early traditions [, including that of Benin,] are illustrated, although most were not known to European travelers."

The past is presented in a 1987 production, designed out of the styles of European cartography developing from the 15th through the 19th centuries ... presented as history, with history made to stand still.

[figure]
"This map is a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn by European cartographers between the 15th and 19th centuries. During that period, the real geography of the interior of the continent was largely unknown. The map captures some of the excitement and unintentional whimsy of early representations of the 'mysterious' continent. The coastline, the first area explored, is relatively accurate, but the inland sources of the rivers remain somewhat fanciful. The sources of the Nile, for example, are shown further south than the river's actual headwaters. Animals vary in appearance from the fantastic to the scientifically accurate. Many of the mountain ranges are imaginary. Art objects from a number of early traditions are illustrated, although most were not known to European travelers."

Artist: Davie Ravitch et al. Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka
[figure]
Entry room of the Benin Gallery, National Museum of African Art

Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka
[figure]
Royal Art of Benin: Kingdom of Benin in the 19th Century

Photograph by Jim Young
[figure]
Origins of Lost-Wax Casting: Area of lost-wax casting in West Africa and names of significant sites and ethnic groups

Photograph by Jim Young

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