A few days ago I went down an internet rabbit-hole and ended up in the land of cartography. I have a bit of a thing for maps. We had an old atlas in my home when I was growing up. It has a blank green fabric cover and gold writing on the spine. As a kid I remember being fascinated by the concept of borders and the lines drawn around states and countries. It was particularly perplexing because the only border I knew was marked by the Pacific Ocean. Maps of the USA was of particular interest to me- all those straight lines and sharp angles seemed so strange. This of course was well before I understood the complicated histories of empires, colonisation, war, land grabs, conquests, and power struggles that lay behind those straight, unnatural looking lines. Some of our most complicated and destructive histories have been marked on maps. But they only tell one story at a time. Other histories get subsumed by loud narratives and taken as truth.
I ended up looking at upside-down maps and was reminded that for every perspective, there is a flipside. It made me think of time-lines - a time honored museological approach to history and storytelling - and how superficial and unhelpful they can be. They are too neat, too tidy. Like those straight lines on a map, their orderliness belie something much more complicated.
Time-lines need to be flipped and reversed, history and narratives need to be inverted. So this week I'm going to take a quick look at the power of inversion...
1. Upside-down maps
I love upside-down world maps. For all their apparent strangeness they really call attention to to the arbitrariness of our current Eurocentric cartographical perception that north is up above and everything else is down under. Twas not always that way. Egyptians understood south to be at the top, because of the Nile Rivers' south to north flow.
The upside-down map reminds us that dominant historical narratives are about perception and power. We see something enough and we believe in its inherent truth and inevitability. Seeing one of these perceptions so boldly inverted and exposed is a bit of a shock to the system.
The institute for Inverted Histories is a project founded by photographer Rebecca Sittler and graphic designer Anastasia Palamarchuk. The duo work together to produce publications, art works and exhibitions that reveal hidden histories, undermine dominant narratives, and insert the historically overlooked.
Their latest work is called Seafaring Women, a rather gorgeous broadsheet style publication that reclaims a space for women in our seafaring history. It "includes stories transcribed from late 19th and early 20th century news archives describing the surprisingly large numbers of women found aboard battleships, submarines and passenger ships as sailor and stowaways. These were especially popular in British and American newspapers of the 1920s, alongside images and advertisements featuring gender-norm challenging “flappers”. Design elements include gender-remixed lithographs of pirates, courtesans, and sailors, remixed signal flags, and a collage of images of ships at sea known to contain these female sailors and stowaways."
3. Red Horse's drawings of The Battle of the Little Bighorn
Red Horse was a Mnicoujou warrior who fought at Little Bighorn. He drew these depictions of the battle as part of an official statement to American officials after he surrendered. They were used as a means of communication to ratify his original testimony. At least they were used by the Americans as testimony, but Red Horse seized the opportunity to use it as an act of defiance. Not only does he depict the Lakota warriors trampling on the bodies of the American invaders, scalped and shot with arrows, he also inverted their flag. This mark of conquest and expansion (and what led to those unnatural straight lines on the map) is perverted, mocked and exposed as a farce in these drawings. As the article mentions, this act of defying and inverting a symbol of destruction was adopted later:
"Displaying United States flags upside down as a protest was soon practiced at other reservations and became a tradition, witnessed in the 1970s at American Indian Movement’s takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and at the Wounded Knee massacre site."
4. Wide Sargasso Sea
One of my favourite books. Written by Jean Rhys and published in 1966, it is an account of Antoinette, the 'mad woman in the attic' from Jane Eyre. Today today we would call it a prequel. But In Rhys' story we do not encounter the same woman we meet in Charlotte Bronte's novel. Rather Rhys inverts the story and re-tells it from Antoinette's perspective, providing the background of a childhood spent in Jamaica and the disastrous consequences of being married off to an unknown Englishman. Their union drives her to insanity - his unwillingness to understand her context, his fear and suspicion of her background and those who surround her, and his eventual rejection and erasure of her identity when he changes her name to Bertha and ships her to England to be a prisoner in his attic.
5. Inversion House, 2005, Dan Havel and Dean Ruck (Art League of Houston)
And on that note, this Tusker is about to go and party in a ballin' house in Tongariro National Park so...