A subtle artistic intervention that recaptured the military’s war maps

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

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:Eugene Hyland

These monumental prints, made by hand-drawn and photolithographic processes on a metal plate, have obliterated the names of the settlers for this country. They are replaced (in 19th century font, to fool the eye), with native place names, part of Quandamooka artist Megan Cope’s heritage.

It’s a subtle, even charming way to erase or undermine colonialism. Cope says she especially likes the irony that this kind of map was created by the military for fear of a wartime invasion.

“Australia at the time [was] afraid of an invasion by the Russians, the Japanese, but what does it mean to copy the Aboriginal place names and enter English names? That was really clear.

“It made me want to change it back.”

Maps are “very political documents,” Cope says. “They can be instruments of expropriation.”

The older parish maps she found during her research had actually used many Aboriginal place names, but when the military research came out, the world had changed. The colonial hold on the land was visible and began to expand: “to really get a grip on the land,” Cope says.

But at the same time, she wanted to make the series aesthetically beautiful, just like the country itself.

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

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