Maud Sulter’s photographic work questions the absence of women artists from history and seeks to restore some of the ‘disappeared’ for posterity. Miranda France met her.
Maud Sulter is an artist in the very broadest sense of the word: photographer, poet and essayist. she has a training in fashion design and a conviction that artistic expression need not limit itself to one medium. Her newest work, Hysteria, is a casein point — simultaneously a story and a metaphor, it is told in photographic prints and music. scripted narrative and marble plaques. Sulter made the work when she was Artist in Residence at Liverpool’s Tate Gallery, and it represents the latest stage in an on-going investigation into her own roots as a black woman artist, and a Scot.
For women, and especially black women. history
hard enough to find examples of female achievement at all, let alone black female role models. So Sulter has made it her business to
celebrate black creativity. Her last work, Zabat.
was a hymn to those black women who have been
, her 'muses‘. Ysaye Maria Barnwell. singer of
Sweet Honey in the Rock is portrayed as Polyhymnia. the muse of the sacred song; Alice Walker — who posed for her before a book-reading in Manchester— becomes Phalia. the muse of comedy.
In Hysteria Sulter continues in the role of chronicler: the story is loosely based on the life of
54 Tim List 6— 19 November 1992
Edmonia Lewis, a black American who lived and worked in Rome in the second halfof the 19th century. ‘She was a sculptor and part of a larger
seems to be defined by the things it leaves out. It is commumty OfcxPamatc women amSts Who lived
and worked in Rome,‘ explains Sulter . ‘She established a succesful career for herself, but towards the end of the century she seemed to disappear. It’s that notion of ‘disappearance‘ that interests me. how women‘s history is written, how our presence is recorded or not recorded, and the resonance that has for contemporary women.‘
‘It could mean that things have gotten so
bad in this country that that’s all they
wanna hear and the country is readyto
explode and the parents are eating their young for breakfast.’
Using Edmonia Lewis‘s story gave Sulter room to explore various themes pertinent to her own interests. Hysteria. like Edmonia. makes her first European stop in Liverpool. home to Britain‘s oldest black community. In Rome she lives a bohemian life uncircumscribed by the Victorian conventions which would have restricted her in Britain. But it is particularly her vanishing that interests Sulter: "I‘he idea ofdiappearance is more central to the piece than the actual disappearance. It’s really to do with how histories are written. and how a romantic disappearance is more interesting. Edmonia serves a purpose of exclusion. her survival depends on her disappearance.‘
The suggestion is that Edmonia Lewis‘s memory has survived for the wrong reasons — not for her artistic talent but for the mysterious end she came to. Sulter even goes so far to say that her misplaced fame prevents other black women artists from
LISTINGS: GLASGOW 56 EDINBURGH 57
The Lawyerand his Wile
becoming famous. ! On the other hand she buys into the mystery too: i in Hysteria our heroine is last seen opening a bag of jewels and picking out a diamond. In effect Sulter illustrates her argument about the unreliable way
in which history is recorded and used by taking fact .
3 and bending it into fiction herself.
So does she feel angry about black women’s
absence from our history books?
‘You feel sad about it, because you‘re only getting a fragment of the picture. But for me its important to take the fragment and make something ofit. It‘s important to record the contribution ofblack artists. both contemporary and historical‘. At London's Institute of Contemporary Arts Sulter took part in the controversial Thin Black Line exhibition. in which eleven black artists exhibited in the corridor space. as an expression of their feelings of marginalisation in Britain. In Sphinx she recorded her impressions of St James. the West African islahd where slaves were taken to be shipped all over the world.
But if her work expresses a sense of marginalisation. Sulter is equally pleased to have a pad in the mainstream from which to launch her ideas. She is represented by a reputable New York gallery whose policy is to show male and female artists ofall colours in equal prOportion. The Victoria and Albert Museum recently bought a set
of Zabat. and the Scottish Arts Council also
Scotland. ‘I look at the world very much from the
feature her in their collection. Sulter‘s next project will trace the history of the black community in perspective ofa Scottish person.‘ she says. ‘I don‘t l think Scottishness is something that you ever off-load.’
Hysteria is at Street Level Gallery until 28 Nov