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Northwestern University
hamdi attia looks at a map with studentsleft

Map in Translation

When Hamdi Attia was growing up in the southern Egyptian city of Asyut, his teachers would ask the blossoming artist to create maps of the Arab world to hang in their classrooms. Attia complied, diligently drawing borders, topography and cities with permanent markers.

Today Attia, artist in residence at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, still makes maps — but not the kind you will find on a classroom wall or in an atlas. Rather, Attia’s maps depict countries and regions that are at once recognizable and uncanny; the reality they present is skewed just enough to disorient viewers. They are, as the name of his most recent series aptly puts it, “Inside Out.”

Consider his digital map of the United Kingdom, which vaguely resembles the familiar island but seems slightly off. The lines are jagged, the shape a bit too compact. And no wonder: Attia has recon­figured the island by adding the shape of Northern Ireland to the lower right corner, sliced the new map in half, and turned the entire image inside out as if it were a sock puppet.

Attia’s version of the U.K. suggests a consolidated, perhaps diminished world power whose presence in the world has been transformed in the last century. “Mapmakers have so many issues to deal with — political, social, cultural, physical — and they have a particular point of view, like everyone else,” he says, noting that mapmakers have traditionally rendered Europe larger than it really is and Africa smaller.

“On a map you can see a power dynamic and you can see a story.” Back to top