Mannequins in Salvador, Brazil, 2009

race & landscape

The landscape has long been at the center of a surprising quantity of scholarship in cultural geography. From Alexander Von Humboldt in the 19th century to Carl Sauer in the 20th, and countless more in between and beyond, the landscape has been seen as the place where human life unfolds, where culture and nature meet.

Throughout much of the 20th century, geographers understood the cultural landscape to reflect an ontologically secure and supra-human notion of culture (e.g. Sauer 1941; Zelinsky 1973). Writing in 1979, geographer Pierce Lewis wrote that the landscape was “our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form” (Lewis 1979: 11). He goes on:

"We rarely think of landscape that way, and so the cultural record we have 'written' in the landscape is liable to be more truthful than most autobiographies because we are less self-conscious about how we describe ourselves. Grady Clay has said it well: 'There are no secrets in the landscape.' All our cultural warts and blemishes are there, and our glories too; but above all, our ordinary day-to- day qualities are exhibited for anybody who wants to find them and knows how to look for them" (Lewis 1979: 11; citing Clay 1973).

More recently, however, cultural geographers have become increasingly interested not so much in how the landscape is our “unwitting autobiography,” surreptitiously recording in the materiality of the physical landscape human tastes, aspirations, and fears, but rather in how the landscape is wholly produced of human struggles, and how the seeming finality of the landscape’s physical form—the end result of those struggles—makes it seem that that’s just the way it is. That is, the physical form of a fully produced—and fully human(ized)—landscape, naturalizes both the fact that it is produced, and the forces that produce it. In this way, all kinds of socially produced inequalities are manifested, made physical, made real, and made natural in the cultural landscape (e.g. Monk 1992; Leib 2002, 2006; Mitchell 2007; Schein 2009; Finn 2010, forthcoming 2013).

My research in this area has focused on race and how racial/racist discourses are produced through, and naturalized in, the landscape; how the landscape becomes a place of contestation of dominant societal discourses on race (e.g. Finn 2010, forthcoming 2013, see below); and how landscapes, and especially historically protected landscapes (e.g. UNESCO World Heritage Sites), can act to rewrite social history by, quite literally, rewriting the urban landscape (e.g. Finn 2012).

places of Graffiti

(In The Ashgate Research Companion on Geographies of Media, edited by P. Adams, J. Craine, and J. Dittmer)

In the summer of 2009 I was invited to give a talk at a research seminar organized by a research group affiliated with the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil. The topic of the seminar—“representations of Bahian society”—posed a challenge for me: As an outsider that had been living and working in Brazil for less than a year, how should I approach this presentation to an audience that would be dominated by local scholars, students, and the public? I opted to put together a talk that merged a central aspect of my own research in Brazil—race—with the idea using the urban landscape as a visual medium to understand the racial and identity struggles taking place in Bahian society. Indeed, there had been something about the visual urban landscape that had been nagging at me since I had landed in Bahia the year before: if everyone in the city suddenly disappeared, and we were forced to understand the city in terms of images of people in advertising throughout the city, what would we see? If we were to judge Salvador’s human geography based on this capitalist representational landscape, how would our perspective of the city change?

The city that is depicted through advertising is a white city. This happens everywhere, from upscale shopping centers to working class markets, from the historic—and historically marginalized—neighborhood of Pelourinho to the elite high rises of the Corredor da Vitória sporting names like “Edificio Yacht Privilege.”

In this context of whiteness dominating nearly all visual representations of race in advertising, the graffiti prevalent throughout the city is a pervasive way that representations of race in the urban landscape are re-appropriated, through which dominant representations of whiteness in a Black city are contested. In the words of Don Mitchell (2000: 100), while “one of the chief functions of landscape is precisely to control meaning and to channel it in particular directions… it is also certainly the case that landscape meaning is contested every step of the way.” Mitch Rose (2002) agrees: “Social subjects are not the passive recipients of representation or its inscriptive powers… landscape is a terrain of struggle where various agents continually attempt to impose and/or resist differing representational constructs.” In Salvador, graffiti becomes a tool of those marginalized from view via mainstream commercial advertising for taking back the vertical spaces throughout the city. Graffiti acts to democratize the visual messages sent, and reasserts control of race representations in the Bahian capital.

My Relevant Publications: 


  • Clay, G. 1973. Close Up: How to Read the American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Leib, J.I. 2002. Separate times, shared spaces: Arthur Ashe, Monument Avenue and the politics of Richmond, Virginia’s symbolic landscape. Cultural Geographies, 9, 286-312.
  • Leib, J.I. 2006. The Witting Autobiography of Richmond, Virginia: Arthur Ashe, the Civil War, and Monument Avenue’s Racialized Landscape, in Landscape and Race in the United States, edited by R.H. Schein. New York: Routledge, 187-212.
  • Lewis, P. 1979. Axioms for Reading the Landscape, in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, edited by D.W. Meinig. New York: Oxford University Press, 11-32.
  • Mitchell, D. 2000. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 
  • Mitchell, D. 2007. Work, struggle, death, and geographies of justice: The transformation of landscape in and beyond California’s imperial valley. Landscape Research 32(5): 559-577.
  • Monk, J. 1992. Gender in the landscape: expression of power and meaning. In Inventing Places: Studies in Cultural Geography, ed. K. J. Anderson and F. Gale, 123-138. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
  • Rose, M. 2003. Landscape and Labyrinths. Geoforum 33(4): 455-467.
  • Sauer, C.O. 1941. Foreword to Historical Geography. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 31 (1): 1-24.
  • Schein, R. 2009. Belonging through land/scape. Environment and Planning A, 41(4), 811-826.
  • Zelinsky, W. 1973. The Cultural Geography of the United States. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.