Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series of guest blogs from the contributors of “Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas,” a book of 22 full-spread maps and 20 essays. The book was co-authored and directed by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker and features the work of a diverse group of cartographers, writers, researchers, photographers, and visual artists. This series gives voice to the principal cartographer, a researcher, and a visual artist. They discuss their roles and reflect on participating in the atlas, as well as their deeper exploration and understanding of New Orleans through this experience.
Today’s final blog comes from visual artist Catherine Burke about creating artwork for the ‘¡Bananas!’ map.
Rebecca Snedeker got in touch with me about working on the map, accompanying Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s “¡Bananas!” essay, after a conversation and mutual appreciation of Alison Pebworth’s (Unfathomable City’s principal artist) show at Antenna Gallery last January. Josh’s essay describes the history of the banana trade in America and the role that New Orleans, as America’s “Gate of the Tropics,” played in that sordid story. Rebecca sent me the essay and Shizue Seigel’s map, and we talked about how to introduce a visual element to the map that could suggest some of the tension and darkness that characterized this period in history. I originally thought of those early maps illustrated with fantastical sea monsters, gaping mouths ready to swallow a ship whole. But with a story as bloody and dark as the banana trade was, we decided it was unnecessary to add an imaginary evil — the true story was plenty gory on its own.
Another initial challenge we faced was just figuring out where there was open real estate on the map to add something. Josh’s essay and Shizue’s map do such a good job at describing the web of shipping routes that connected New Orleans with the Caribbean that I didn’t want to add any extraneous element that would break up the continuity of those interconnected lines.
From the beginning, we wanted to have a smaller illustration of a ship along one of the trade routes, how you might see in old maps. To get started I needed to get a sense of what this fleet of steamships, responsible for shuttling both bananas and American tourists across the Caribbean, looked like. Rebecca and I must share an affinity for vintage photographs and bygone brochures, because we had some pretty enthusiastic emails exchanging images we pulled up in our research on “The Great White Fleet.”
This term, “Great White Fleet,” was originally used in 1907, in reference to the fleet of freshly painted white (rather than the customary gray) warships that circumnavigated the globe under President Teddy Roosevelt, in a sort of nautical parade of growing American military power. Around the same time, United Fruit also painted their ships white to reflect the tropical sunlight and to allow banana temperatures to be more easily maintained. As the United Fruit Company’s fleet of big, fast, white reefer vessels grew, they too became known as the Great White Fleet, and in some sense, the banana steamships had a similar function as the American warships — to demonstrate power over the waters they traveled and lands that they connected.
One very telling example of this impulse to dominate is the simple radio tower icon that Shizue created for the map — 19 of them dotted across the map throughout Central America and Hispaniola — which represent radio stations controlled by United Fruit Company. In the early twentieth century, control of the radio in lands one was exploiting was a powerful thing, indeed.
From the 1920’s on, Standard and United Fruit Companies catered not just to the American appetite for bananas, but to the growing American fascination with the Caribbean, when they began selling trips aboard their ships. This transition from banana importer to proto-cruise line can be seen in some promotional brochures for United Fruit Company’s cruises.
In the brochures, the ships either loom large and stately or zip efficiently across the Caribbean, cutting cool and modern lines in the sea towards exotic destinations, suggested by birds or a palm tree hovering at the edge.
I have always loved looking at old advertisements, both for their graphic styles and compositions, and also for what they not so subtly express about the aspirations and desires of the time. In these images the boat itself represents access to a tropical fantasy, where Harry Belafonte is playing on repeat and Carmen Miranda knows what to do with a banana.
Seeing the power of the vessel repeated in these images convinced me the map needed a representation of one of these steamships. I drew it tilting up at an intimidating angle like it’s trying to overpower the title itself. I also wanted something organic in the composition to contrast with the imposing shape of the ship.
Growing up in the Irish Channel, I spent a lot of time under the broken shade of tattered banana trees that, despite my parent’s best efforts at landscaping, always made our backyard look jungle-like and unkempt. I liked the image of the banana tree for this visual vulnerability — that its leaves structure causes them to break and shred in a particular way — and also because the banana tree is such a familiar sight in New Orleans.
Creating a connection between things we see every day, like banana trees, cruise ships, or the façade of a defunct exploitative neocolonialist corporation on St. Charles Avenue, and the people and stories behind them, is what makes these essays and maps so compelling. What I wanted to do as a visual contributor was to put one final stitch in the telling of this story, adding something simple that would help tie things together. The first draft I submitted included more of the banana tree:
But after a few revisions, we decided to pare it down and let just the torn banana leaves and the overbearing steamship stand in for the violent mismatching of power and interests that characterized the banana trade.
Catherine Burke, a New Orleans native, studied art at Cooper Union in New York and book design in Barcelona, Spain. She was the designer for How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress, a citizen’s guide to the do-it-yourself recovery of New Orleans.