In her short but influential career, Sulter reinvented the visual imagery of black women and highlighted the long-standing connections between Africa and Europe. This is the first time a major survey of Sulter’s work has been shown outside Scotland.
Sulter declared that she wanted ‘to put black women back in the centre of the frame’. She consistently sought to bring to light histories of those women – real or imagined – whose contribution to culture had been erased. Zabat (1989) is a series of large-scale colour portraits depicting contemporary black women in the guise of the ancient Muses. Sulter’s powerful image of Terpsichore, the Muse of dance and lyric poetry, overturns the conventions of 18th century portraiture, presenting a black woman wearing the elaborate white wig associated with the slave-owning class. Hysteria (1991) was partly inspired by 19th century African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and tells the story of a black woman artist who came to Europe seeking fame and fortune, but disappeared without trace.
As an award-winning poet, Sulter interwove words, poems, and texts into her visual work, and was frequently inspired by literature. In Les Bijoux (2002), she plays a character inspired by 19th century Frenchwoman Jeanne Duval, the so-called ‘Black Venus’ who inspired Baudelaire’s poetry. In this series of bold self-portraits, the viewer is confronted by multiple images of Sulter dressed in elegant gowns, with jewels gleaming at her throat.
Sulter passionately believed in the long-intertwined histories of Africa and Europe, contesting the notion that the black presence in the UK was a recent arrival. Her photomontage Twa Blak Wimmin (1997) was inspired by historical accounts of ‘Blak Margaret’ and ‘Blak Elene’ who were feted at the court of King James IV of Scotland in the early 16th century. Syrcas (1993), a major work that was chosen to represent Britain at the first Johannesburg Biennale, combines vintage postcards of Alpine landscapes, illustrations from publications on African art, and images of European art and photography. Ostensibly pages from a scrapbook made by ‘Helga’, a fictitious girl of Cameroonian descent whose parents are killed in the Third Reich, Syrcas links the horrors of African slavery with the European persecution of minorities in the 1930s and 1940s. This is the first time in over 20 years that these 16 large-scale images will be shown in their entirety as a set.
Passion is a Street Level Photoworks/Autograph ABP partnership in association with TrAIN
Maud Sulter (1960–2008) was an award-winning artist and writer, curator and gallerist of Ghanain and Scottish heritage who lived and worked in Britain. She exhibited widely and was selected by The British Council to represent Britain at Africus, the Johannesburg Biennale of 1995. Her art has been acquired by numerous private and public collections, including the Scottish Parliament, the Arts Council Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Council Collection, the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and those collections who have loaned work for this show. She wrote several collections of poetry, and edited a pioneering collection of writings and images, Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity. This was published by the imprint she founded, Urban Fox Press, ‘a revolutionary new press for the more radical 90s’. She was active in the Black feminist and lesbian movements, often inspired by African-American activists, artists and writers. She curated nearly 20 exhibitions, and set up a gallery, Rich Women of Zurich in London’s Clerkenwell.