A subtle artistic intervention that recovered the army’s war maps

At first glance, they are simply beautiful maps: old-school 1940s military maps of the south-east coast of Queensland, printed in intricate detail and a bright, calm blue. But take a closer look.

Megan Cope with her work Yarabindja Budjurung I and II 2021 at NGV Australia.

Megan Cope with her work Yarabindja Budjurung I and II 2021 at NGV Australia.Credit:eugenio hyland

These monumental prints, made from the processes of hand drawing and photolithography on metal plates, have erased the names of the colonizers of this country. They are replaced (in 19th-century typography, to fool the eye) with indigenous place names, part of Quandamooka artist Megan Cope’s heritage.

It is a subtle, even charming, way of erasing or subverting colonialism. Cope says he particularly loves the irony that this type of map was created by the military out of fear of invasion during wartime.

Australia at the moment [was] afraid of the invasion of the Russians, the Japanese, but what does it mean to write about aboriginal place names and put names in English? That was really obvious.

“It made me want to change it back.”

The maps are “highly political documents,” says Cope. “They can be tools of dispossession.”

The oldest parish maps he found during his research actually used many Aboriginal place names, but by the time the military survey came out, the world had changed. Colonial control over the land was visible and beginning to expand: “really controlling the land,” says Cope.

But at the same time I wanted the series to be aesthetically beautiful, like the country itself.

“[These maps] capture the landscape in time. Is history. All this information is there about borders, water sources, where the bees are, banana plantations.”

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