how i use art to explore the problematic nature of western maps and the myth of ‘terra nullius’

In Western society, maps are often perceived as scientific, neutral and objective tools. Cartography has always been shaped by our social and cultural relationships with the land. Over the past 20 years, approaches to creating maps have become much more reliant on photographic and digital technologies, including Google Earth.

However, these technologies carry a rarely recognized subjective and colonial agenda towards the representation of place.

My artistic exploration of Western maps began during my honors year in 2020 and has since become a key part of my doctoral research. Due to the pandemic, travel to the Pitta Pitta country was banned, which prevented me from creating photographs of the country for my project.

Pitta Pitta is located in western Queensland, 300 kilometers south of Mount Isa. My maternal great-grandmother, Dolly Creed, was stolen from Country as a child and my family has been torn apart ever since. My understanding of this landscape is informed by oral history, and my relationship to it is shaped by my distance from it.

Pitta Pitta (So called terra nullius), 2020, from the series (Dis)connected to Country.
Jahkarli Romani, Author provided (no reuse)

I grew up in Wadawurrung Country, an hour south of Naarm (Melbourne), and have lived in Victoria all my life. Like many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, my understanding of myself is shaped by the atrocities my family has suffered as a result of colonization.

These experiences strongly influence my practice and my research.

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Country Relations

In response to COVID travel restrictions, I decided to go to Pitta Pitta “virtually” via Google Earth. Looking around Pitta Pitta via the Street View feature, I began to notice the inaccuracy of the technology. The footage hadn’t been updated since 2007, the technology had a lot of issues, and most importantly, there was no acknowledgment of the Native Custody.

I went looking for places I recognized on Country in Google Earth to see what had been photographed.

On the outskirts of Boulia, a small town in the country, a Ouadi tree stands. Waddi trees are rare species of Acacia endemic to the central regions of Australia. This particular tree was an important gathering place for my people.

In Google Earth, it had been reduced to a mass of pixels, a smeared black shadow on a reddish landscape. I was angry that Google decided that this tree wasn’t important, but I also started to wonder why.

Responding to Google’s representation of the tree, Waddi Tree from my (Dis)connected to Country series aims to demonstrate where Google Earth has erased topographical information and indigenous knowledge of place.

Waddi Tree, 2020 from the (Dis)connected to Country series.
Jahkarli Romani, Author provided (no reuse)

My research fills this gap. Waddi Tree overlays a photograph I took of the tree when I last visited Country in 2019 over a screenshot of its location in Google Earth.

By omitting indigenous knowledge of place, Western maps of Australia perpetuate the false colonial narrative of zero ground – land belonging to no one.

The photographic technologies used in Google Earth do not enable, or represent, the important relationships that Indigenous peoples have with the country. Photographic and digital images also intertwined with mapping in Google Earth. It changes our relationship to place, normalizing a flattened and very limited view.

Read more: An Ode To My Grandmother: Remaking the Past Using Oral Histories, Drama and Music

Glitches in time

Indigenous knowledge of place is rooted in relationships that recognize that all life forms have power and are interconnected.

Simply put, the country, all that it encompasses, and the self are intertwined and equally valued.

Other images in the series seek to identify where technology malfunctions and breaks down in itself. I like to think of these “problems” as tears in the technological fabric of Google Earth, and therefore the narratives that the technology enforces. Pitta Pitta (Google’s Earth) and Pitta Pitta (Published Without Permission) are freeze frames of the transitions between aerial and street view functions that compound this problem.

Pitta Pitta (Published without permission) 2022 from the series (Dis)connected to Country.
Jahkarli Romani, Author provided (no reuse)

My research and my artistic practice are influenced by my family history and my position as a Pitta Pitta woman.

I acknowledge my ancestors and my great-grandmother Dolly whose story has shaped my family in unimaginable ways. Furthermore, I pay my respects to the Permanent Guardians of the Kulin Nations where I work and live.

Sovereignty has never been ceded and it has always been and always will be Indigenous land.

I will end with a quote from Indigenous scholar Aunty Mary Graham:

There is no Aboriginal equivalent to the Cartesian notion of ‘I think therefore I am’, but if there was, it would be – I am situated therefore I am. Place, being, belonging and connectedness all flow from a locality in the Earth.

Pitta Pitta (Archived at Google Earth Museum), 2022, from the series (Dis)connected to Country.
Jahkarli Romani, Author provided (no reuse)

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