Publication: The Times
Visual Art: Giles Sutherland
Unti 21 June
STAR RATING: *** (THREE)
THE PHOTOGRAPHER, artist, activist and poet Maud Sulter died in 2008 at the tragically young age of 47. Sulter was of Ghanaian and Scottish descent and her life’s work was dedicated to challenging the myths and histories surrounding the African relationship with Europe. Sulter’s range of references was substantial and, often, provocative. The viewer and reader are frequently confronted, so that they have to reassess some of their own beliefs.
In the prose poem ‘Blood Money (remix)’ Sulter writes about the lives of two fictional characters of African descent, Monique and Kwesi, living in Germany during the Second World War.
When the war came Kwesi was made to wear
a red star for being a Communist and an inverted
black triangle - signifier of a race biology
categorisation. Monique could have escaped to France
and back to Cameroon but she would have had to leave
her husband and child. Would you?
Sulter frequently wrote text to accompany her artworks. Her poetry was also often published independently.
This show revisits some of Sulter’s major projects and exhibitions including ‘Syrcas’. Sulter has used collage and photomontage to combine disparate imagery in stark juxtaposition. The basis included a set of postcards of picturesque European mountain scenery, publications on African art and images from modern culture. These have been combined in the form of artefacts, including masks and dolls. The resulting small artworks have been photographically enlarged and are shown here as a set of poster-sized prints. The original works can be seen in a plan-chest, which houses other artefacts and exhibits.
Two black and white prints from the 1990 series ‘Paris Noir’ show West African Ashanti ‘Akua Mma’ dolls. These wooden artefacts represent beauty and were traditionally carried by women, on their backs, in the belief that they aided conception. On one Sulter has written ‘Gwendolyn Bennett in Paris was homesick for New York’ and on the other, ‘Langston Hughes Knew Paris Well’. Hughes was a writer and Bennett an artist; both sojourned in the French capital in the 1920s.
Projects such as Hysteria, Zabat and Le Bijoux are more polished, professional and contemporary. Hysteria was originally part of an installation and consists of a suit of photographic prints that re-imagine the life of the African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) who travelled from the United States to Europe where she worked in the classical tradition. She is seen here as the personification of Hysteria (modelled by Sulter herself) surrounded by her circle -- ‘Hagg’, ‘Chrone’ etc.
Sulter’s best known work, Zabat, presents contemporary black women artists, writers and musicians as a gallery of ancient muses, posed in conventional historical European costume, in sumptuous gold frames. The frames act as an ironic reference to a canon of Western art in which black women, and men, are marginalised. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863), for example, shows a seductively posed courtesan; but her black handmaiden somehow merges with the dark background of the canvas. Studies of the painting readily identify Victorine Meurent as Olympia; references to her servant, and her real identity, are scarce.
Numerous vitrines and display cases document aspects of Sulter life ¾ as a child with her Scottish grandfather, as a poet with numerous collections to her name, and details of her work as an activist, editor and curator.
This is tribute to a multi-talented woman, a voice rare, if not alone. But her talent deserves more exploration and a more extensive venue.
* Maud Sulter’s About Face, a series of large format portraits of Scottish writers, is at Hillhead Library, Glasgow until 28 June