Maud Sulter 1960-2008
Maud Sulter (1960–2008) was an award-winning artist and writer, cultural historian, curator and gallerist of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage who lived and worked in Britain. She was awarded an MA in 1990 (Derby School of Art, now University of Derby). She won the British Telecom New Contemporaries Award and Momart Fellowship at Tate Liverpool. She was nominated for the European Photography awards in 1991. Her series Syrcas (1993) was selected by the British Council to represent Britain at Africus, the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995. She taught at several universities and between 1992 and 1994 she was Principal Lecturer in Fine Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University. She exhibited widely in Britain, Europe and North America.
Her poem “As A Blackwoman” won the Vera Bell Prize for poetry in 1985. She wrote several collections of poetry, including As A Blackwoman (1985), Zabat: Poetics of A Family Tree (1989) and Sekhmet (2005), a film script for Hysteria (1990), and a play, Service to Empire about Jerry Rawlings (2002). Her poetry was widely anthologised. She edited and contributed to a pioneering collection of writings and images, Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (1990). 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 numerous exhibitions and she set up a gallery, Rich Women of Zurich in Clerkenwell in London, to promote diversity and mid-career artists.
in her early years in London she wrote and performed poetry, and exhibited art work. She curated Check It!, a two-week festival celebrating black women’s creativity, and with the artist and photographer Ingrid Pollard she started the Blackwomen’s Creativity Project. Invited to contribute to The Thin Black Line, the landmark exhibition organised by Lubaina Himid at the ICA in 1985, she contributed a triptych of burnt paper collages, Poetry in Motion (1985, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery). Her first major photographic series was Sphinx (1987, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston). These black and white images, shot in The Gambia, capture the watery edges of a country and a continent, the decaying remains of a notorious slavery port on St James Island.
Throughout her career and across different media, Maud Sulter interrogated the representation of black women in the histories of art, the media and photography.
This whole notion of the disappeared, I think, is something that runs through my work. I’m very interested in absence and presence in the way that particularly black women’s experience and black women’s contribution to culture is so often erased and marginalized. So that it’s important for me as an individual, and obviously as a black woman artist, to put black women back in the centre of the frame – both literally within the photographic image, but also within the cultural institutions where our work operates.
Zabat (1989), a series of Cibachrome photographs featured contemporary Black artists, musicians and writers, posed as a theatre of ancient muses. Hysteria (1990) offered an imaginative recreation of an artist in nineteenth-century Rome, loosely based on the life and times of Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), a celebrated sculptor of African-American and Native American (Chippewa) heritage.
Maud Sulter critically investigated the complex experiences of the African diaspora in European history and culture over the past six hundred years, producing a substantial body of work on Jeanne Duval, showcased in an international loan exhibition she curated in 2003, Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama. In Les Bijoux (2002), a suite of nine self-portraits, Sulter appears as Jeanne Duval, one of several women of African heritage in the Parisian art world of the mid-nineteenth century, best known as the muse and companion of poet Charles Baudelaire. She showcased the series in a loan exhibition of historical art works (possibly) featuring Jeanne Duval which she selected. In the catalogue she wrote: “My ongoing visual fascination with Jeanne Duval began in 1988 with a visceral response to a Nadar photograph captioned Unknown Woman. There she stared at me willing me to give her a name, an identity, a voice. So for over a decade, I have been image making with her in mind, from Calliope in Zabat, 1989 to Les Bijoux, 2002.” (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2003, p. 11).
Sulter’s major series Syrcas (1993) investigates the many connections between Africa and Europe and the often hidden lives of Black people during the Holocaust. In the first decade of this century Sulter returned to studio photography, taking up large-format Polaroid portraiture. Portraits of six writers for children were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in London (2001). Her last project, Sekhmet (2005), an exhibition of images and texts accompanied by a new collection of poems, retraced her interest in family photography, bringing together portraits of family members from Scotland and Ghana, and showcasing her diasporan and global connections.
Maud Sulter’s art work can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, Arts Council Collection, British Council Collection, the Scottish Parliament, National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, City Art Centre Edinburgh, the McManus Dundee, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Leeds University Art Gallery, St Andrews University Museums, New Hall Art Collection, Cambridge, and several private collections. Her writings are available at the Glasgow Women’s Library, the Stuart Hall Library at Rivington Place in London, the Scottish Poetry Library and many other libraries.