Telling Africa’s story via maps, artifacts

A map often can tell us as much about the people who made it as the place being charted. At least, that’s a theme behind a new exhibition opening Feb. 28 at Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Paper Museum.

The show, entitled “Mapping Place: Africa Beyond Paper,” explores the many different kinds of maps and objects that have been used to conceptualize the continent of Africa, including African artifacts, historical European representations of Africa, and paper objects pertaining to the scientific, administrative, commercial and military exploitation of the continent.

“Mapping Place” is one of many cultural events in a citywide, yearlong series of exhibitions, performances and other events entitled “Africa Atlanta,” organized by the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech in collaboration with the Consulate General of Belgium in Atlanta.

The lineup is meant to highlight Atlanta as a possible nexus for uniting the cultural and economic bonds between Africa, Europe and America.

The centerpiece of the year is a major exhibition of one the world’s premier collections of African artifacts from the Royal Museum of Central Africa, “Kongo Across the Waters,” at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum beginning May 17.

“‘Mapping Place’ is a kind of a window into ‘Kongo Across the Waters’ and into the ‘Africa Atlanta’ event in general,” said Kenneth Knoespel of Tech’s Ivan Allen College. “All of these things came together to provoke an intense conversation among many partners. It’s an opportunity to reinvent our connections with Africa.”

Curators were interested in documenting the relationship between maps and stories. The exhibition is meant to invite viewers to contemplate the way they approach and think about Africa.

A set of European maps shows the ways Europe has framed Africa, starting with 16th century maps purporting to show the mythological origins of the Nile and moving up to more contemporary cartographic depictions of the continent.

Another major focus of the exhibition is a traditional lukasa board, a ceremonial object from the Luba people of central Africa. Markings and beads are traditionally placed on the board to recall various stories, places, genealogies and lore important to a particular tribe. Like the precious objects in the “Kongo Across the Waters” exhibition, the lukasa board is on loan from the Royal Museum of Central Africa.

Although the rare lukasa board will be behind glass, viewers will have the chance to try their hand at a high-tech, interactive version. Using a special type of touch screen projected onto a tabletop, visitors will be able to move various beads to illustrate their own stories. Stories will be documented anonymously through the recording of all the various movements of the beads during exhibition hours.

The virtual lukasa board is the creation Alexandra Mazalek, an associate professor of digital media at Georgia Tech who worked closely with the museum, graduate students and undergraduate students to design it.

“Everybody uses oral storytelling,” museum Director Teri Williams said. “But the board and the exhibition will encourage viewers to contemplate the very different ways of thinking about place and time and geography and history. It’s a very abstract idea to try to express, but we in the West are not the only people to think about these things.”

The exhibition’s entryway will display two works by famed contemporary South African artist William Kentridge, whose work often touches on inscription and culture. The works are on loan from the High Museum and are meant to provide an artistic orientation on the exhibition’s themes.

Other upcoming or ongoing events in the “Africa Atlanta” series include a show of African masks at the High Museum through June 1, a multimedia screening of film work by Sanford Biggers with live accompaniment by jazz band Moon Medicine at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts March 28, a summit on global health and Africa in May, and an exhibition exploring African fashion design at Spelman College’s Museum of Fine Art beginning in September.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.