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Reagan Yessler, graduate student in UT's Department of Geography

Graduate Student Spotlight: Reagan Yessler

Traditional cartography has been a process owned by governments and empires for centuries. Historically, it has been a tool of exploitation—the result of European explorers tasked with mapping trade routes and colonial territories. The determination of borders and landmarks presented a single view of the world as seen through the lens of power and authority.

Counter-mapping is an emerging research concept in cultural geography. It is reclaiming the cartographic process to be used for social justice by revealing the realities and knowledge of oppressed groups in society. This approach is currently the focus of research being done by Reagan Yessler, a graduate student in the Department of Geography, and their advisor Derek Alderman, professor of geography.

Yessler’s research is based upon the premise that society not only develops out of its local landscape but also shapes it. By expanding the concept of geography beyond a linear set of symbols and icons, they demonstrate how alternative media, such as art, photography, and theater, can be equally important in orienting viewers to the creator’s experience in time and space. The two are examining the works of African American artist Louise Jefferson and how they function as maps.

Louise Jefferson (1908-2002) was an African American artist, known for her illustrations and photography. Through her work, especially her photography, she depicted the experience of African Americans in the 20th century. She created a framework from which others could navigate the world around them, both physically and emotionally.

“Her artwork helped orient the viewer not only in physical space, but also where African Americans fit within the American social structure; these functions made her art behave as maps, even though they did not fit the traditional form of a map,” Yessler said. “Her art was also more quickly and easily understood than a traditional map, making it more effective and evocative than traditional mapping. This shows that those not often considered academics can have valuable insights into a field, and improve the form and function of that field.”

They are also working to challenge the established academia in their graduate research on how race, gender, and sexuality are portrayed in the Globe Theatre in London. The Globe represents an interesting dichotomy between its roles as both a historic museum space and a modern, living performance theater. Traditional performances of Shakespearean works represent an antiquated view of race, gender, and class that are representative of the Elizabethan era in which they were written. This approach is validated by the historical context of the theater.

Modern performances, however, allow for actors to challenge the established dynamic and push the boundaries of race and gender. Casting diverse actors to play a wider range of characters, as well as exploring the role of sexual identity in Shakespearean literature, allows modern theatrical interpretations to elevate minority voices in a way that was underrepresented in historical performances. Set against the backdrop of the Globe lends legitimacy to this expanded view of Shakespearean societal roles. Yessler says that the Globe “gives both actors and academics space to effectively argue their case on what Shakespeare represents: experimentation or history, or perhaps both.”

Representing minority populations is part of a personal journey for Yessler. While attending high school in Pigeon Forge, they found that studying Shakespeare allowed them to explore their own gender identity and sexuality. “The more I learned about Shakespeare, the more I saw myself represented in the characters,” Yessler said. “The humor was more bawdy and scandalous than the version I learned in school. I wanted to explore the concept that other, legitimate voices represent an equally important contribution to the wealthy, European version of history that is traditionally presented.”

Both of these research efforts represent the concept of counter-mapping as a tool of resistance. It challenges the established social contracts and draws attention to the experiences of underrepresented minorities. By expanding the concepts of academia, the field of cultural geography illustrates how murals, posters, photography, and theater function as maps in that they locate the marginalized community in space and social relations.

“This art commemorates and communicates that many people are excluded from traditional social circles across the world and that they are omitted from the social contract upon which laws and policies are constructed,” said Yessler. “Art then creates a new social contract, a way of commemorating a community’s disenfranchisement, and a call for reform. By doing so, it essentially creates a map for the path toward equality.”