Professor Jennifer Borland’s Gender in Visual Culture seminar recently studied the Femfolio, a portfolio of prints by artists whose work was central to the feminist movement of the 1970s created at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions. This week’s post is adapted from a paper by graduate student Mary Kathryn Moeller, who investigated Joyce Kozloff’s 2007 print, Maui: Sugar Plantation.
Joyce Kozloff’s Maui: Sugar Plantation is the product of a fascination with mapping that has occupied the artist since the 1990s. Treating the physical map as a structure into which large issues can be inserted and understood, Kozloff organizes multiple layers of patterns, text, codes and colors to explore and comment on humanity’s attempt to breakdown the natural world into quantifiable units and establish dominion over its environment. As part of the FemFolio project, Kozloff’s print continues the artist’s commitment to the ideal, first formed through her work as part of the feminist movement in the 1970s, that women artists must “engage in the culture in order to change it.”
On first viewing, Maui: Sugar Plantations is a jumble of visual elements made up of three separate maps laid over one another. Of these maps, the one oriented vertically, and thus most easily understood by the viewer, is that of “Spanish Camp A.” It is the most recent of the three cartographic systems and represents not just the domination of humans on nature but the displacement of native people from their land, the importation of indentured servants as a labor source, and the appropriation of natural resources into the growing web created by industrial capitalism at the turn of the century. Created via junctions of dark black lines and shapes, it includes a strong meandering line noted as “Reservoir Ditch” which holds the rest of the camp design in the top third of the picture plane.
The upper right side of the camp is dominated by a box of symmetrical barracks that served as the living quarters for the plantation workers and their families during the 19th and 20th centuries. The rest of the camp spreads out across the surface, connected by roads indicated by dotted lines and rimmed by support facilities such as the hospital on the left side. The details and notations are tiny and invite intimate inspection on the part of the viewer. To completely take in all of the visual aspects of the camp is to lean closely to the surface of the image and thereby gain a sense of the cramped space that was occupied by the plantation workers.
Beneath the structure of the plantation camp map lie three vast circles, laid out diagonally across the 12” x 12” image and interspersed with numbers and words. This cipher is placed upside down, making a clear interpretation difficult. Viewers may determine that the numbers, circles, and text, laid across vast areas of blue, are representative of nautical maps used to plot the precise location of an island—but without being properly oriented (or having the specialized knowledge needed to understand these markings) the map as a tool becomes inert and unstable.
Beneath the first two layers, lies a topographical map of Maui. Here the most natural aspects of the island rise from Kozloff’s ocean blue in light greens and ever-darkening browns to delineate the rise of Haleakala, one of Hawaii’s most active volcanoes. The details of the natural elements of Maui are difficult to decipher beneath the graphics of the other two maps and, again, as with the nautical map, the island is flipped. Haleakala actually occupies much of the southeastern portion of the Maui, but in Kozloff’s rendering, the volcano is in the northwest corner. If the viewers were permitted to grasp the frame and rotate the picture plane, they would be confirmed in their positions as controllers of the vastness of nature and the employment of its resources for their purposes and benefit; but to do so would upturn the systematic organization of “Spanish Camp A”, negating the utility of the island for human occupation. Kozloff thus throws down a graphic gauntlet: understanding of the natural world and man’s proper place within it can only come via the sacrifice of some aspect of control.
While Maui: Sugar Plantation does not contain any overt imagery to connect it with Kozloff’s feminist work of the 1970s, the examination of control and power via imperial expansion and subjugation of non-Western peoples is certainly a conceptual bedfellow with the broader feminist movement. Through her graphic choices, Kozloff reveals the biases of political realities which continue the “activist temperament” she first discovered as part of the women’s movement in the early 1970s. Her organization of layered maps offers viewers the chance to participate with her in the “re-mapping and reinvention [of] the world” as it is daily presented, with the hope of changing attitudes and actions towards the betterment of mankind and the planet.