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Maud Sulter

Born, 1960 in Glasgow, Scotland. Died, 2008

Maud Sulter, artist, photographer, poet, and writer was born on 19 September 1960 and died 27 February 2008.

As a Black Woman - Maud Sulter’s first collection of poetry - is an assertion of self, (of being a black woman born and brought up in Scotland, suffering racial isolation and the racism of that upbringing); of womanhood, loves, blackness, Afrikaness, consciousness and celebration. The writing of Afro-Scottish authors is nowadays mainly associated with the work of acclaimed poet, Jackie Kay. However the texts of the other black Scottish pioneer, Maud Sulter are usually relegated to a secondary position, partly due to the fact of [that] author’s abandonment of poetry for the plastic arts. In the eighties, when the debate about Scotland’s national identity was the main preoccupation for intellectuals, Sulter denounced in her writings the myths about social justice in the country”

Maud Sulter is a Scots artist, writer, cultural historian and [was for a time] course leader of the Masters programme in Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, Previous exhibitions include[d] African Themes, Victoria and Albert Museum London (1993), Intimate Lives, City Art Centre Edinburgh (1993) and Hysteria, Tate Gallery Liverpool (1991). With Lubaina Himid, Maud Sulter edited the book Passion: Discourses in Blackwomens Creativity and has curated several international exhibitions. (b. Glasgow, 17 Sept 1960), Scottish photographer and writer, of Ghanaian [and Scottish] descent. In 1885 she came to prominence as one of eleven women artists exhibited in The Thin Black Line at the ICA, London, curated by Lubaina Himid. This show marked the first significant breakthrough for contemporary Black and Asian art in a British public gallery. Sulter’s subsequent presentations gained her international recognition: she was awarded the British Telecom New Contemporaries Award 1990 and the Momart Fellowship at the Tate Gallery of Liverpool in 1990. She employed a variety of media in her work, including text, photography, sound recordings and performance. A frequent traveler and a prolific writer as well as [an] artist, she focused her activity on a critical reappraisal of received histories and an assertion of Black cultural heritage. Noted works by Sulter included Zabat (1987; London V&A), a series of Cibachrome photographic portraits of contemporary Black artists, musicians and writers, posed as a theatre of ancient muses. In Paris Noir (1987; priv. col.) she created an alternative history of Black citizens of Europe, while Syrcas (exh. 1994; Wrexham Library art Centre) is a set of montages and texts linking the holocausts of African slavery with European persecution of minorities in the 1930s and 1940s.”

The above unattributed text (which may be an amalgamation of different parts) was on the Abebooks web site on 10/3/08. The text made mention of Sulter’s positions being “related to those of Jackie Kay as to the construction of a dignified identity in a hostile context.” The text had Sulter’s birth date as 17 September, though the Glasgow Herald’s obituary of Sulter had her birth date as 19 September.

For a period of time Maud Sulter worked closely, in a number of ways, with Lubaina Himid. Together they were (as mentioned above) responsible for the only British-produced book dedicated to examining and celebrating the work of Black women artists. The book, Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity, was published by Urban Fox Press 1990. Himid and Sulter contributed the essay A Statement from the Elbow Room, Freedom and change: she who writes herstory rewrites history’ in the Other Voices section of The Other Story catalogue.

In 2002,  Sulter photographed the American-born social commentator, playwright, novelist and critic Bonnie Greer, in the manner of the well-known eighteenth-century painting of an anonymous sitter by Marie-Guillemine Benoit, Portrait d’une négress, 1800. Sulter’s version, Portrait d’une Négress (Bonnie Greer) (2002) is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sulter’s work was included in the important exhibition Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora. The exhibition was a collaboration between the following galleries in Canada: Thames Art Gallery, Chatham, Ontario; Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia; The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario; Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec; and Yukon Arts Centre, Whitehorse, Yukon. The exhibition featured work by Deanna Bowen, Christopher Cozier, Michael Fernandes, and Maud Sulter. Her work in the exhibition included the polaroid photographs Les Bijoux I-IX 2002, from her Jeanne Duval | A Melodrama series, first exhibited at National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003.

Peter James Hudson was one of the writers for Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora exhibition catalogue.  Hudson’s text was titled Anti-Localism. In it, he described Les Bijoux, from Sulter’s body of work, Jeanne Duval | A Melodrama.

Maud Sulter’s Les Bijoux centres on and is inspired by the figure of Jeanne Duval, a mixed race black woman actor and prostitute who was the long time lover of French poet Charles Baudelaire. For twenry five years during the mid-nineteenth century, Duval and Baudelaire had a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship. She is referred to as Baudelaire’s muse, though the term seems altogether too polite and simplistic for what transpired between them. Even so, Duval is said to have inspired Baudelaire’s richest wrtiting, and she is regarded as the source of the so-called “Black Venus” cycle of Baudelaire’s notorious erotic romp, Fleurs du Mal (1857) - a book of poems containing early, textbook cases of exoticized depictions of black women. “Languourous Asia, scorching Africa,” Baudelaire writes in La Chevelure, “A whole world distant, vacant, nearly dead, Lives in your depths, o forest of perfume!”

… Sulter deliberately repositions Duval within dominant historical narratibves while critiquing the formalist history of portraiture. But she also creates an intriguing set of exchanges between her self-portraits and baudelaire’s poems…”

Elsewhere in the same publication, Rinaldo Walcott (in his essay Salted Cod… : Black Canada and Diasporic Sensibilities) wrote: “Maud Sulter’s work most directly confronts the history of art-making. The excavating practice of her photography uncovers and reclaims, but I would argue it also fundamentally repositions black people in artistic practice, and does so as a political project meant to resignify our humanity. This work reworks history, writes history, and paints the sensibilities of diasporan consciousness into being. Sulter’s photographs are an elaboration and a refutation of the narrative of black peoples’ exclusion from and traumatic experiences of the lively and still-living justifications of transatlantic slavery.”

Sulter contributed work to the major exhibition Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body, which was curated by Barbara Thompson, curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. Sulter died shortly before the exhibition opened. It was originated by Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire and exhibited there April 1 - August 10, 2008 before touring to venues in Wellesley, Massachusetts and San Diego, California. Sulter’s work was reproduced in the substantial catalogue accompanying the exhibition. It was also featured on the catalogue’s cover. [Terpsichore, 1989, Dye deconstruction print, Arts Council Collection, London.]

The exhibition also featured contributions by the following artists: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Renée Cox, Angéle Etoundi Essamba, Lalla Assia Essaydi, Emile Guebehi, Senzeni Marasela, Nandipha Mntambo, Zanele Muholi, Hassan Musa, Wangechi Mutu, Ingrid Mwangi/Robert Hutter - IngridMwangiRobertHutter Collective, Magdalene Odundo, Etiyé Dimma Poulsen, Alison Saar, Joyce J. Scott, Berni Searle, Fazal Sheikh, Malick Sidibé, Penny Siopsis, Sokari Douglas Camp, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Carla Williams.

Surprisingly perhaps, Sulter’s death passed relatively unremarked, the most substantial obituary appearing in the Herald, Glasgow, 22 March 2008, a few weeks after her death.

Link to Maud Sulter’s work in the V&A Collection: collections.vam.ac.uk/search/?listing_type=&offset=0&limit=15&narrow=&extrasearch=&q=maud+sulter&commit=Search&quality=0&objectnamesearch=&placesearch=&after=&after-adbc=AD&before=&before-adbc=AD&namesearch=&materialsearch=&mnsearch=&locationsearch=

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