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Maplective: Breaking colonial tools and building community at the UCL Urban Room

11 June 2024

As Sonia E. Barrett's Maplective exhibition comes to a close, we reflect on its time at the UCL Urban Room and how Sonia and local communities have intervened in the space to disrupt and reimagine colonial tools and legacies.

5 women sitting around a circle braiding shredded maps in the UCL Urban Room, next to hanging sculptures made from old cameras and desks

When you walk into the UCL Urban Room, you are confronted by 6 striking installations made from objects that at first seem surprisingly commonplace: four desks, one camera and a mass of interwoven, shredded maps.  

In the MAPLECTIVE exhibition, currently taking residence in our Urban Room on the ground floor of the new UCL East One Pool Street campus, artist Sonia E. Barrett takes European tools, instrumental in creating colonial power, and breaks and remakes them to uncover the cultures that came before.

However, Sonia does not view her work as a breaking practice. As she puts it “How can I be accused of smashing things when I stand in the shards of my own society? The tools are reborn into a broken world”. 

Through creative workshops, sculpture, discussion and performance, Sonia invited local east London communities to respond to her works, to co-create new sculptures that reframe the question, “What was here before?” 

Building a collective

The ‘map-lective’ is a collective of black and brown women who applied techniques of personal care, embedded in black communities, to dealing with maps. In dread-locking or braiding the map, they developed their first work ('Dreading the Map'), creating a space for a new understanding of maps and the unravelling of colonial power.

The map-lective came about as Sonia wanted to see if it would be possible to use the map to break the map, and to take on tools so closely intertwined with white male practice and grand colonial power. 

She was initially overwhelmed with the enormity of the task she faced, but with support from Dr Patricia Noxolo (Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at University of Birmingham), Sonia was able to freely explore her research and make space for new communities to contribute to, and challenge, institutional knowledge production. 

woman lying down and braiding paper maps
Member of the East Bank map-lective at a workshop in the UCL Urban Room. Credit: Sarah Bennett

The map-lective’s original sculpture has been growing over its residency at the Urban Room. Sonia has been working with small groups of black and brown women, forming the 'East Bank map-lective', and local communities to shred and braid the maps (sourced from the Royal Geographical Society) of colonised and post colonised, coloniser and post coloniser territories. Through these workshops, Sonia has created informal, mediative spaces where people can connect and reflect. 

The feedback from the community has been really positive, with participants saying it has been “a really generative and restful thing to do”, “that it has satisfied a need I did not know I had” and that “the connections formed have been astonishingly fast and deep".

Large sculpture made from shredded maps hanging from the ceiling at the UCL Urban Room. A large window is behind, through which you can see some of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Orbit
Co-created by Sonia E. Barrett and the East Bank map-lective. UCL Urban Room. May 2024. East Bank map-lective co-producers: Dijle Akdag, Adwoa Brown, Abiba Coulibaly, Lumiere Chieh, Toyin Gbomedo, Shelley Grimmond, Jenice Joseph.


Breaking the tools

As well as maps, desks and cameras are a key feature of Sonia’s work. The portable wooden desks that Europeans carried when they went to Africa were the site on which they wrote letters home, journals, and reports that now form the archives of Africa in Europe.

While generating material on these desks, they also collected locally produced objects such as masks. Photography was also a powerful colonial weapon, and cameras can be seen as a site of violence, used to demean and disempower African kingship and identity. 

Sonia E. Barrett talks to a crowd of people in the UCL Urban Room in front of her desk work pieces.
Sonia E. Barrett talks to visitors at the UCL Urban Room in front of her 'Desk Work' sculptures. Credit: Sarah Bennett

In her work. Sonia integrates the technology of mask-making - objects which are used to tell regional oral histories and stories - with the technology of cameras and portable desks - objects used to rewrite a continent from a European perspective. In doing so, she aims to subvert their original use and present them as a means for the African diaspora to speak back to Empire beyond the letters and photographs used to represent them. 

Sonia also invited visitors to wear and respond to these pieces – her desk work has been suspended in “changing rooms” in the exhibition, waiting for a person who may feel the need to perform or respond to them. 

Creating a movement

All the works will move to occupy new spaces and create new meanings, and Sonia hopes the community built here will continue to connect and develop.

“A new map-lective was formed on the East bank at UCL Urban Room. The Urban Room enabled an informal space for us to gather, have uncurated encounters and conversations, and make the work. I hope to continue many of the dialogues I’ve started here beyond this residency.

“The East Bank map-lective will hopefully stay connected and develop until such time as I am able to gather all the other map-lectives for a combined meeting and final iteration of the work”. Sonia E. Barrett


The MAPLECTIVE exhibition is on at the UCL Urban Room until Saturday 16th June. The exhibition is open Monday - Saturday, 10am – 6pm and there is no need to book. Find out more.

Explore Sonia E. Barrett's work.