Passion presents the multi-layered work of Maud Sulter (1960—2008), a photographic artist, poet, and curator of Scottish-Ghanaian descent. 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 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.
Co-curator Deborah Cherry says ‘Maud Sulter was an important artist who put race, sexuality and identity at the heart of debates about art and aesthetics. She gave a voice and image to black women in history and fiction who have been forgotten or erased’. Co-curator Malcolm Dickson says ‘The exhibition redresses cultural neglect and contributes to a significant reappraisal that puts Sulter back in the frame of art history as well as on the cutting edge of contemporary practice.’