In A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand speaks of her anxiety about flying over the doors of no return on a flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg. As she flies above Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, she muses; ‘…the door is not in this map. The door is on my retina.’ Brand understands the door of no return as a rapture that is not confined to any specific geography or historical moment.
Maps in English, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Latin, detail the names of settlements along the West African coast from Senegal to Angola where many of these doors existed or continue to exist. Sharply written words in black ink puncture the lines of the land, like needles forced into resisting skin. These West African shores were named for the resources that could be plundered; the Grain Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast. Until the 19th century, these European maps gave the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean the name the Aethiopian Sea. It was divided from the Atlantic Ocean by the narrower channel of water between the cities of Natal, Brazil and Monrovia, Liberia. From the 19th century onwards, the name becomes obsolete, seemingly being washed out into that vast ocean of no return.
Historical maps are also studded with another feature: phantom islands. The first appears in a portolan from 1424, drawn by a Venetian cartographer, where an island called Antilia appears. It doesn’t exist, but it was of great interest to many at the time, and would later give its name to the Antilles archipelago. Antilia appeared over several centuries on the maps of many European cartographers, until the 16th century, when it started to slowly sink into the Atlantic, and out of consciousness.
Harvey Dimond is a British-Barbadian writer, artist and curator based between Scotland and South Africa.
This text is one of a series of new writing commissions in response to SALT, Art Walk Projects’ ongoing season of artist residencies. It also forms part of a new editorial partnership between Art Walk Projects and MAP, working together to support contemporary art writing through experimental approaches to commissioning and publishing. SALT culminates in the publication of a book in spring 2023.