Queensland Art Gallery: Noel McKenna

Out of all the exhibitions I wanted to see in Brisbane, Landscape Mapped was at the top of my list. I had seen a few different works promoted on the webiste of QaGOMA, including the map of public bathrooms in Sydney’s CBD. In short, I was hoping for a pretty cool exhibition that used maps creatively and showed me something I had never known about Australia.

To provide some context, Noel McKenna was born and raised in Brisbane (this will be revisited later on). Over a fifteen year period, he painted maps of Australia highlighting the weird and wonderful. If I had to describe the exhibition in one word I would go with whimsical. It sparked a sense of curiosity and actually made me reconsider the geography of Australia and how it can be interpreted. In a way, this was the main aim of the exhibition – to look at Australia from a number of different perspectives showing how small parts can make up a whole. I think it most definitely achieved this goal.

The entire exhibition was nicely confined to one room. In total, there were approximately twenty large canvas works on display (I completely forgot to count how many). There was no narrative or strict path to follow. What I did notice was that all the works were well spaced out. We found that it was easy to see everything despite there being a crowd. I do recommend taking your time to look around as some of the maps are quite intricate and you could literally spend an entire hour just looking at one map. There were only a couple of display cases and objects in the centre of the room meaning that the maps were really prominent and there was enough space to move around freely. Now that I’ve covered the basic layout, I am going to focus on a few of my favourite maps.

1. Australian Art History


What is there not to love about this map? Besides from the fact that we were hoping no one would start writing all over it. It was the most unusual map on display. While all the others had cities and towns marked, this one remained blank, except, of course, for the crossword boxes.

2. Big Things Australia


One of my fondest memories growing up in Australia was visiting the Big Pineapple. Therefore, as soon as I saw this map I was completely captivated. To me, what really stands out about this map is that every single big object has inspired a smaller painting within the overall painting.

Highlights include the big prawn, big mango, and the big merino. One day I might have the time, money, and energy to actually see all of these big objects with my own eyes. A day that would be very far into the future.

3. Australia Danger


I thought this map might just cover dangerous Australian animals. Running down the left side of the map, however, are also statistics on murders, home break-ins, and personal crime. It is a very well researched and insightful map that shows the dark side of this country.

One thing I noticed in quite a few of his works was that they were quite rustic. For example, you could see pencil lines that haven’t quite been erased. I really liked this aspect of his work because the focus was on what the maps were trying to say and not on producing perfect cartographical masterpieces.

4. Public Toilets Sydney CBD


This map is something that I needed in my life about two years ago. In the whole exhibition there were three maps that zoomed in on capital cities. I don’t know why I like this map so much. Probably because it is actually something quite useful to know.

5. Words of Queensland


If you are visiting from overseas or interstate, this is a great map to spend some time reading. A lot of Queensland jargon is printed over an outline of the State along with dictionary-type definitions. Rocky made it onto the map but sadly Gladdy did not. I wonder if there is any chance of a revised edition.

6. Brisbane: My Home 1956-1979


This map went beyond being amazing and actually became inspiring. McKenna has geographically pin-pointed places termed “significant memory locations”. After seeing this map I am actually quite eager to create my own memory map. His included places such as his childhood home, primary school, high school, location of first job, etc. On the map itself, he has just placed a dot and a number. Around the edges of the map were the numbers with corresponding information.

Overall, I really enjoyed this exhibition. It was quirky and filled with Australiana. It could be appreciated by someone visiting Australia for the first time or someone who has lived here their whole lives. It really had a little something in it for a wide range of audiences.

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