In 1982, the artist Maud Sulter wrote: ‘as a black woman creativity is central to my existence. It is a means of survival […] Within a hostile urban environment we deconstruct dynamisms of sex, race and class to survive.’ Throughout her career, Sulter was committed to using creativity to challenge and critique the western canon of art history. Placing black women at the centre of her art, she consistently engaged with questions of race and gender inequality, particularly investigating African diasporas in Europe.
Born of Scottish-Ghanain parentage in Glasgow in 1960, Sulter became active in feminist circles in London in the early 1980s. Attaining a Masters degree in Photographic Theory, she achieved early acclaim with Check It, a two-week show she programmed at the Drill Hall, London. In 1985, she was included in The Thin Black Line, a group exhibition of women artists curated by Lubaina Himid at the ICA.
While artist-in residence at Rochdale Art Gallery in 1989, she produced one of her most famous works, Zabat: Poetics of a Family Tree. That year, the world was marking the 150th anniversary of photography; Sulter felt the celebrations privileged white photographic practice and conceived Zabat as a response to this. A series of exquisitely rendered studio portraits, Zabat casts nine creative black women as the muses of classical antiquity. Sulter’s models include performance artist Delta Streete – representing Terpsichore, the muse of dance – and the author Alice Walker as Urania, the muse of comedy and bringer of flowers. An acerbic quote from Walker provides an epigraph to a text on Clio, the muse of history: ‘As a black person and a woman I don’t read history for facts, I read it for clues.’
Salter continued to photograph creative women; in 2001, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned her to take portraits of children’s authors including Grace Nichols, Malorie Blackman and Jacqueline Wilson. Sulter had herself posed in Zabat as Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. She used herself as a model again, in 2003, for Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama. This was a series of self-portraits as Charles Baudelaire’s muse, Jeanne Duval, the Haitian born actress.
When Sulter died in 2008, she left a formidable body of work including photographs, poetry and plays. She had also enjoyed a successful career as a lecturer and cultural historian, notably editing Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (1990), a collection of writing and images. Today, her work is held in numerous collections including the Arts Council Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Galleries of Scotland.
Sources and Further Reading
Cherry, D., ‘Research on the Art of Maud Sulter’, 2013.
Cole, F., ‘Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae’, Photomonitor, 2013.
Eckstein, L., ed., Multi-Ethnic Britain 2000+: New Perspectives in Literature, Film and the Arts, Amsterdam and New York, 2008.
Herald Scotland, ‘Maud Sulter’, Herald Scotland, 22 March 2008.
Moutoussammy-Ashe, J. Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, Michigan, 2003.