Maud Sulter

1960Glasgow, United Kingdom | 2008Dumfries, United Kingdom

British visual artist, photographer and writer.

Maud Sulter was a Scottish artist and feminist activist of Ghanaian heritage. She left Glasgow at the age of 17 to study at the London College of Fashion in, and later graduated with a Master’s degree in photographic studies from the University of Derby. She started her career as a poet and published her first volume (which won the Vera Bell Prize), As a Blackwoman, in 1985. That same year she took part as a visual artist in The Thin Black Line, curated by Lubaina Himid (b. 1954), the first major exhibition to feature contemporary women artists from ethnic minorities in a British public institution, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Another significant step in her career came in 1990 with the publication of Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity by Urban Fox Press, her own publishing house. This groundbreaking publication was the result of the Blackwomen’s Creativity Project, which she started with photographer Ingrid Pollard (b. 1953) in the 1980s. In 1999-2000, she opened a gallery, Rich Women of Zurich, in the Clerkenwell area of London, with a view to exhibit her own works and those of other artists from her community.
From the mid-1980s, her works flouted the codes of Western art to denounce the discriminations and erasure faced by the African diaspora. As a member of the British Black Arts Movement, M. Sulter strove to place black women at the centre of an art history that had excluded them. She used a variety of mediums in her work, including writing, performance art and photography. In 1987 Sphinx, her first solo exhibition, featured a series of black-and-white photographs she took on an island off the coast of Gambia where slaves bound for the Americas were detained. In 1989 her series of Cibachrome portraits Zabat showed the artist alongside eight other black artists, each meant to personify an Ancient Greek Muse. Her photographic work earned her widespread recognition and several distinctions, including the British Telecom New Contemporaries Award and the MoMart Fellowship at Tate Liverpool in 1990.

M. Sulter chaired the Fine Arts master’s programme at Manchester Metropolitan University for a time. She undertook research on the cultural history of the African diaspora in Europe, which led her to produce several series inspired by the lives of black women, such as Paris Noir (1990), Alba (1995) and Twa Blak Wimmin (1997). Her series Hysteria (1991) was inspired by the life of Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), an African-American and Native American sculptor who made a career in Rome. Several of M. Sulter’s projects also focused on Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s muse and partner, to whom she said she wanted to “give a name, an identity, a voice” (Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama, 2003). In her most famous series, Syrcas (1993), she used photomontage to address the subject of the transatlantic slave trade and the persecution of the descendants of African slaves in fascist Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Her last project, Sekhmet (2005), was based on the artist’s personal story. In it, she revisits photographic archives on both sides of her family – Scottish and Ghanaian – which she showed alongside poems about the realities of diasporic life. M. Sulter died of cancer at the age of 47, leaving behind a body of work that is still relevant and which was the subject of a retrospective exhibition, Maud Sulter: Passion, at Street Level Photoworks in her hometown of Glasgow in 2015.

Érika Nimis

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in the framework of the Season Africa2020.

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