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MAPPA MUNDI - An Intercultural Approach to the Icon

Lifati Harimedi and Anjali Jay in MAPPA MUNDI

Artistic Director Michael Walling discusses the production

"Often I picture a map of the world and you lying across it. And then it seems as if the only areas open to my life are those that are not caused by you or are out of your reach." (Franz Kafka to his father)

I had an obsession with the Mappa Mundi from an early age. I was educated at Hereford Cathedral School, which meant that we attended a daily assembly in the Cathedral itself. This was before the Cathedral's financial crisis had led to the attempt to sell the map, the outcry in the press, and the last-minute saving of the map for Hereford by John Paul Getty; so there was no special building to house the map and the Chained Library, no inter-active Mappa Mundi Experience, no carefully managed publicity machine. The map hung in an aisle on the North side of the choir, and we walked past it every day; a crinkly brown collection of surreal cartoons and indecipherable inscriptions. A favourite schoolboy game was to trawl the images swashing in our brains for whatever the map might resemble. A cow pat was the most common idea: a brain in a bell-jar the most poetic. That's the one which stuck with me. Years later, our stage map-maker was passed through a brain scanner, and a series of images appeared, dissolving slowly one into the next, co-existing momentarily in performance: a brain, the Mappa Mundi, the world seen from space, and the brain again. 

Any image of the world, including that supposedly scientific one photographed from Apollo, is subjectively shaped by the minds of its makers, carrying numerous cultural assumptions and messages. Mapping is a deceptive activity. The precise representation of physical space is often the least of its concerns. Mapping is an art, a way of interpreting and representing the world to others. The worlds represented in maps reach beyond the mundanely scientific to encompass the imagined and the desired. They express our beliefs about what matters in our world, and about our relationship to others who inhabit it. 

When Richard of Holdingham made the Hereford Mappa Mundi around 1300, he expressed a way of seeing the world which most of his Western European contemporaries would have recognised and understood. Jersusalem, the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, was the centre. Paradise, by the same logic, was at the top. Stories from the Bible and from classical myth jostled in his fertile imagination, and so came to populate the world he drew. Richard would have known that the world was a sphere, but knew nothing at all about what was in the southern half, so he left it out. He knew something of China from travellers like Marco Polo, a little about India and Egypt. Rumours had come from Africa of other peoples very different from his own: it was only logical to present them as monsters. Geography was not a real concern. In a sense, Mappa Mundi is a cross-section of the medieval mind. A brain scan illuminated on vellum. 

The maps with which we are most familiar today - pseudo-scientific representations of an apparently known world - show our own minds in a remarkably similar way. They are slippery customers. The "reality" is that there is no line which tells us where India ends and Pakistan begins; that Africa, shown about the same size as the USA on the Mercator projection, is actually about three times its size; that the rich North is not on top of the impoverished South. These maps are fictions which sustain the global system - moral, political and economic, even spiritual - within which we now operate. But they are not the only maps. Our desires and our imaginations are, like Richard of Holdingham's, capable of creating many new maps of the world. 

These were the obsessions and hunches which drove me, during the summer of 1999, to bring together an extraordinary and brilliant group of performers from around the world, to explore the idea of the Mappa Mundi through their own map-making theatre arts. Mauricio Elorriaga from Mexico was to be both an actor and our set designer; Nisha Dassyne from the multi-lingual island of Mauritius would both perform and create the costumes. Lifati Harimedi came to us from the township of Mbare in Zimbabwe, bringing his deep knowledge of traditional music and dance forms. Anjali Jay, from the Krishna Rao family of Bharatanatyam dancers in Bangalore, was our Indian performer. Veronica Needa, whose racial origins encompass China, Japan, Britain, France and Syria (at least), brought her skills in Chinese nuo theatre and her passion for performing stories from direct experience, Playback Theatre. Peter Kenny, the actor and counter-tenor who was also a central part of the workshop, subsequently left the project: we were very fortunate that Ben Pitts was able to bring a very different and galvanizing energy to the work. This motley troupe was joined by video maker David Wheeler, and by composer Paul Howard-Jones, in whose back garden we built a rehearsal stage. 

At the time, I didn't really think about why it felt right to begin our creative process in the open air. Looking back, I suppose there were two instincts at work. One was to do with the nature of the theatre traditions from which Anjali, Lifati and Mauricio came: much of the elemental power we feel in the African and Asian forms, and the immediacy of Latin American street theatre, stem from working in the open air. The other was a sense of connectedness to Mappa Mundi itself. One of the most appealing aspects of Holdingham's hand-drawn, subjective cartography was its connectedness to the earth (the map was drawn on a cow-skin: there were cows watching us improvise). Because the map lacks a fixed viewpoint (except, perhaps, the viewpoint of God), it actually gives a very powerful sense of the emotional geography of medieval space; what it felt like to move around connected to that earth. Objectivity only came in with the Renaissance and perspective, with grids and detachment, with scientific knowability and the colonial desire to own. Our work began with digging. 

We dug the foundations for our workshop space. It gave us the feeling of a Japanese Noh stage, built on top of a symbolic grave. We played over a grave. Playing on a grave leads to resurrections. Living together, experimenting with inter-cultural communication on every level from politics and prayers to washing up and shopping, we found a need arising to re-visit and re-assess our sense of self in the context of one another. Our ancestors were resurrected in our work, and their lives came to be explored and mapped through our experiments with theatre forms. Lifati told us the story of his grandfather Pilaw, who had been the sole survivor of a massacre in Mozambique, had walked to his village covered with blood and been hailed as a hero; only to find that jealousy and faction led to his having to flee to Rhodesia (as it then was), where he ended his life as a cook on a white farm. Veronica led us through the life of her Chinese grandmother Lily: married to an English sailor at sixteen, widowed with eight children at thirty-two, she saw one son die in the siege of Hong Kong, and the rest of her children disperse around the globe. Nisha shared the story of her grandfather's brother Sirikissoon, who was disowned by his Indo-Mauritian family after he was imprisoned for firing shots into the air at a political meeting, and who was bailed out by his bold Sino-Mauritian mistress, Claude. Mauricio amazed us all with the story of his grandfather Enrique, whose Castilian parents had been murdered when he was five. Enrique and his siblings escaped to Mexico, where he eventually became a devotee of the Revolution, and a socially conscious doctor. Our resurrected ancestors, given new life through a huge range of performing styles, became central figures in our performance. 

As we worked, we discovered the relationships between the stories we were mapping and the idea of mapping itself. We became aware that each one of us in some way sprung from a family and a culture shaped by the clash of mappings; and by the ever-increasing dominance of the supposedly objective and scientific, in fact capitalist and Euro-centric, map of the world. This process could at times be very painful: I recall one very important discussion during which Lifati insisted that colonialism had to be regarded as "Wrong, wrong, wrong", and Veronica countered that she felt compelled to accept the colonial reality, because to deny it would be to deny who she was. Both viewpoints, coming from those particular people, compelled attention. It became ever clearer that, to address mapping today, we had to give voice to alternative images of the world. Paradoxically, we found that the Hereford Mappa Mundi, while undoubtedly Christian and Euro-centric, offered a model here. It offered it through the richness of its diversity, through its celebration of the comedy of difference. We found ourselves recalling my schoolboy games, and linking our stories to the map's teeming imagery. Lily suggested the woman warrior in the East of the Mappa Mundi. Sirikissoon's family resonated with Mappa's Essedones, eating the flesh of their own kindred. The politics of Mauritius, with its extraordinary mixture of languages, reminded us that the largest feature on the map is the Tower of Babel. Pilaw's journey into exile resonated with the only journey shown on the map: the route of the Exodus. As we improvised Pilaw's first meeting with the Rhodesian farmer who would dominate the second half of his life, we recalled the deeply suggestive irony that Mappa Mundi shows an Africa populated by monstrous races of people; but that, by a scribal error, the names of Africa and Europe have been reversed. 

And so we went back to the map. In Hereford Cathedral, we met Dominic Harbour, who runs the Mappa Mundi Exhibition. I walked through the wonderful ancient building, which I had known for so long, to show Lifati the tomb of St. Thomas Canteloupe. This was where the Mappa Mundi had probably been intended to stand, as an icon of the bishop's power and supposed sanctity. Lifati had come to us with a considerable distrust of Christianity, which he (rightly) perceived as an ideology which had been used to subjugate Africa, and which today drains vast amounts of money from impoverished people to dubious evangelical organisations in the United States. But, seeing the tombs which fill the Cathedral, Lifati was struck by a great affinity between medieval Christianity and African religion; a sense of the holiness of the dead, of ancestor-worship, and hence of the way in which ritual and performance relate in both cultures to exorcism. It was then that Dominic mentioned the plague pit. When they were digging the foundations for the new building to house the Mappa Mundi, he told us, they found more than two thousand bodies from the era of the Black Death. 

Digging. Playing over the grave. Resurrection. Exorcism. 

Ghosts and plays have much in common. The energies and needs of particular times and places seem to call upon them both, as witnesses to our dilemmas and as balm for wounds as yet unhealed. If ever a time cried out for healing, that time is now.

The performances we gave in 2000 involved Richard of Holdingham's own resurrection, as children played over his grave. The stories of our ghosts became his visions of a world in need of new mappings. On one level, Richard's map came to symbolise the power of mapping to re-inforce power structures, to subjugate and to colonise. But, on another level, it offered a sense of the potential for renewal through a subjective, earthed, mapping process. There are no borders or boundaries on the Mappa Mundi. There is only the imagination.

Our work on this piece is not yet finished. I don't actually believe that any theatre work is ever finished: a performance is simply one version. We are now in the process of re-working MAPPA MUNDI to be presented again in the latter part of 2001 and early 2002, both in Britain and overseas. No doubt we will continue to change it in response to the differing audiences we encounter on our way. This is part of what we discovered: that a world map for today needs to be a fluid, mutable, kaleidoscopic creation. Performance, the art which is alive, is the ideal medium for a contemporary map of the world.

Michael Walling 
London, February 2nd 2001

Notes & Acknowledgments 

On the Mappa Mundi, see: 
Harvey, P.D.A.: Mappa Mundi - The Hereford World Map London, British Museum 1996. 
Flint, Valerie I.J.: The Hereford Map: Its Author(s), Two Scenes and a Border TRHS 1998