Maud Sulter: Passion, Impressions Gallery

Passion surveys the most significant and intriguing work of Scottish-Ghanian artist Maud Sulter (1960-2008). The black presence in Europe is a central concern of the work currently exhibited at Impressions Gallery, Bradford. As a photographic artist, poet and curator, her work aimed to highlight the histories of women, whether real or imagined, whose contribution to culture had been not been included in the relevant discourses because of wilful ignorance, or had been erased. Her declaration was that she wanted to: “to put black women back in the centre of the frame’” Sulter wished to highlight the longstanding historical links between Europe and Africa and thereby cause a revision in the minds of those compelled to imagine that black people arrived in Europe in the 1950s. Many bodies of work from Sulter’s career are brought together in Passion. Although she achieved multiple successes in her lifetime – she represented the UK at Africus, the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995 – her work has since been overlooked.

The visitor first encounters a body Sulter’s work titled Syrcas (1993) on entering the gallery space. These are wall-mounted, two-dimensional works that combine postcards of Alpine landscapes with illustrations from publications on African and European art. These images see the Alpine postcards amplified in scale such that the detail of the method of printing is visible. The postcards are prints of watercolours which, once blown up in this way, impart an overtly cosy sense of contrived pixilation. Superimposed on these somewhat claustrophobic landscapes are the Illustrations and photographs of African and European art in sharp relief and usually in a contrasting black and white. The effect of this stark contrast between a contrived and fuzzy European self-image and the perspicuous superimposition of that which mirrors and evidences both African and European societies is unsettling and somewhat irksome. It amounts to both an appeal to and undermining of mythical and societal sensibilities. Further investigation reveals that Sulter imagined that the works in Syrcas as pages from a scrapbook made by ‘Helga’, a fictitious Cameroonian girl whose parents were killed in Nazi Germany.

Zabat (1989) depicts contemporary black women in the guise of the nine Muses of ancient Greek Myth. Photographs of the women in different costumes and poses are highly elegant. The basis of the European Enlightenment is treated with a mind to the longstanding historical relationship between Europe and Africa and the black presence in Europe. Along similar lines Les Bijoux (2002) is a body of photographic work in which the artist plays Frenchwoman Jeanne Duval who was the Romantic partner of Charles Beaudelaire. Where some Feminist critics had said that Beaudelaire perceived Duval as exotic, sexualised and corrupting owing to stereotypical beliefs about Creole women, Sulter resists this view. The images of her as Duval are many and consistent in form, being one of portraiture. Each sees a slightly different angle of the artist’s head and shoulders with a broad variety of emotional expressions visually. In each, she is wearing elegant jewellery. The broad range of emotions depicted indicate a view of a relationship with emotional depth.

The visitor also finds a photograph of Sulter from her infancy with a description indicating that this was her favourite photograph of herself. In the photograph the artist is seen as a baby, held in a pram wearing a bonnet. The context is a British holiday resort. A parrot sits on the pram clutching one of the handle bars. The combination of European and African imagery utilised as an indication of the longstanding relationship between the two and the black presence in Europe was clearly one of great import to Sulter. As a device for the expression of both this highly personal connection and a challenge to misinformation about the arrival of African people in the 1950s it is successful through the artist’s narrative reinforcement.

Daniel Potts

Maud Sulter, Passion, is at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, until 4 June. Find out more

1. Duval, from the series Syrcas (1993) © Maud Sulter, courtesy the Estate of Maud Sulter.