USF's Mapping “The East” Artfully Traces Cultural Biases Over Time

In this era of precise, convenient and regularly updated mapping apps that guide users via step-by-step directions, no one wants to squint at and decipher directions on a traditional paper map.  This theory is easily disproven by visiting Mapping “The East”: Envisioning Asia in the Age of Exploration at Manresa Gallery.  The 20 16th- and 17th-century maps and guidebooks contained in the exhibition, culled from collections at Tokyo's Sophia University and University of San Francisco's Ricci Institute, are stunningly imaginative works of art as well as historically relevant demonstrations of early European attitudes toward Asians in the Age of Exploration.  Designed by European cartographers, these unique artifacts also remind us of how age-old cross-cultural relations still impact us today. Mapping “The East” runs through May 22 at Manresa Gallery. 

SF Weekly spoke to Mapping “The East”'s co-curator Madeline E. Warner (USF class of ’15) about developing the exhibit, the interesting cultural biases she uncovered along the way and why historic maps are worth far more than their weight in paper — even in the age of Google Maps. 

[jump] How did you develop the direction that this exhibit would take?

Working with Prof. Catherine Lusheck (Art History/Arts Administration Program, USF), I came up with the idea when we were looking at hundreds of maps of China and Japan mostly done by European cartographers to bring over. Originally, I thought I was going to learn a lot about Asia, but I learned more about what Europeans thought of Asia or the historical perspective of Asia through a European lens, which was really interesting. So my big idea behind the show was how these maps reflect the culture, values and interests of their European makers of this new Asian context that they were exploring and mapping. 

You break the show up by four distinct themes organized into four different galleries.  

The first is Discovery, a new understanding of geography that was incorporated into maps of the time.
Then there is Knowledge or scientific discovery because this was also a time of reintroducing ideas of latitude and longitude and global climate zones and time zones to maps. The third theme that I looked at was Religion, because a lot of the information coming back that was used for these maps was from the Jesuit missions to China and Japan. As you know, the exhibit is held at Saint Ignatius Church, and USF is a Jesuit school, so that was a really interesting piece to tease out.  

Then the last piece, which is my personal favorite, is Imagination. With a 20th-century mindset, we tend to view maps as these very factual and trustworthy documents, but we don't think of them as having a bias at all. But what was really interesting to me, working on the show, was that the element of imagination was strongly at play, so there'd be sea monsters that decorate these old maps. I was learning a lot about what those meant and the importance of them at the time and how cartographers were able to seamlessly weave these fantastical elements with the science and the new geography.

Which of the imaginative elements really stood out to you?

One of my favorite things is this fictitious lake that started off, I believe, in the writings of Marco Polo and then just took on a life of its own. It's actually depicted in more than half the maps in the show. It's this lake with these five descending branches, which were thought to be the five rivers in Southeast Asia. It's not a real lake, but it became this important landmark in European maps of Southeast Asia. Part of my fun, working on the show, was looking at how many maps included this lake.

Another element that I really liked is that a couple of our maps show these depictions of these sailing land boats that could be wheeled on land and sailed by the wind.  They took on this life of their own in European maps of Asia but I don't think had any basis in any real contraption that was being used. 

What cultural biases did you uncover in these maps?

There's definitely an interest in the people and the customs, which comes out in the Imagination gallery, and depictions of the Japanese manner of crucifixion, where the person is tied to the cross and stabbed with a spear, which is a little gruesome. It was a political thing that refers to the 26 Martyrs of Japan, which is shown in a couple of the maps in the show. It really highlights the European interest in the difference between the European and Japanese manner and obviously had an important religious significance. There are also a lot of depictions of what these people were wearing and their style of clothes that was meant to be an interesting juxtaposition to European clothing.

Did you find hints of prejudice or racism in these colonialist maps?

Usually, we think of European colonialism as being a very negative dominating thing. But what I learned from my research was that in Asia they actually took the opposite approach, because this was from their perspective the first time they encountered a culture that at the time they considered, in their documents, intellectually equal to their own. They really treated them as intellectual equals, so the attitude they took was one of mutual appreciation and understanding, which comes out in the maps. 

How did you choose which maps to feature in the exhibition?

It was a difficult choice because we had so many wonderful maps. But when I was researching them, we wanted a diversity of different themes, geographies and maps from both the 16th and 17th centuries and some from some very important cartographers. Abraham Ortelius, Gerardus Mercator and Sebastian Münster are some of our big superstars. We were looking for diversity in terms of aesthetics and subject matters, so there would be different things to look at and talk about.

Why did you concentrate on the 16th and 17th centuries?

That was the era when the mapmaking from China and Japan became really big in Europe because of the Jesuit missions to China and Japan. 

In 2016, most people no longer use paper maps. They pull up mapping apps on their phones, built on GPS, that just tell them where to go.  With Google Maps' accuracy and convenience, what keeps these outdated maps relevant?

When I was starting the show, I was thinking, “How are we going to make this something that not just cartography buffs are going to come to?” When I was researching them, I realized that they really aren't just about the geography or how to get from point a to point b. It's really interesting to learn how they were used, and I think that gets teased out by how we have them organized in the four different themes because they cater to so many interests. You don't really have to cater to cartography or geography to understand or enjoy these maps because they also have that religious and playfully imaginative element to them that make them interesting to viewers.

You've already touched on this, but how does setting the exhibition within St. Ignatius Church enhance the visitor experience?

It's such a beautiful space. It's really nice because it has these glass walls, so you get the view from inside the church. Also, the space itself lends itself to the four ways we had it organized. It's got four successive galleries, so you can build a narrative as you walk through the galleries, which is really nice. 

What do you hope that people take away from this show?

That they leave with an appreciation for these really beautiful objects as more than just maps. Saying “maps” can sound a little dry as historical factual documents, but I hope that they can see how they can be fun and playful and imaginative objects as well as think about how maps are poignant examples of European perspectives on Asia. So it's about how these maps can show us our biases and be a lens onto the world that they depict rather than just be a static snapshot in time.

Mapping “The East”: Envisioning Asia in the Age of Exploration, through May 22, at Manresa Gallery @ St. Ignatius Church, Free, 650 Parker Ave., 415-422-5901 or

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