Maud Sulter was born in Glasgow, of Scots and Ghanaian descent: in her poem ‘Circa 1930’ she pointed out that these two cultures ‘are not as disparate as they might / at first seem. Clan-based societies / With long memories and global diasporas.’ The exploration of the continuing presence of Africa in Europe was one of her principal themes, explored through her art in a variety of media: text, photography, sound and performance.
She was active in feminist communities in London in the early 1980s, and while working with a women’s education group programmed ‘Check It’, a groundbreaking two-week show at the Drill Hall showcasing Black women’s creativity. Having obtained a Masters degree in photographic theory (her Scottish grandfather was an amateur photographer), Sulter came to prominence as one of eleven women artists exhibited in ‘The Thin Black Line’ at the ICA, London, curated by Lubaina Himid, in 1986. This show marked a 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 Liverpool in 1990. She wrote and lectured extensively on art history, focusing on women’s art practice from the mid-19th to the early 20th century.
Notable works by Sulter include 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; Syrcas (1994; Wrexham and Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh), a set of montages and texts linking the horrors of African slavery with the European persecution of minorities in the 1930s and 1940s; Jeanne Duval: a melodrama (2003; Scottish National Portrait Gallery). This last was a series of dramatically beautiful self-portraits as Baudelaire’s muse, Jeanne Duval.
She was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to photograph several children’s writers, and used a special Polaroid machine which produced 20” x 24” photographs. This was also the medium for a series of portraits she made of Scottish cultural figures in the summer of 2002, and ten of her portraits of writers were toured round Scotland by the Scottish Poetry Library in 2003-4. Glasgow acquired the portrait of Edwin Morgan from this series.
As well as her academic writing, Sulter published several collections of poetry: As a Blackwoman (Akira Press, 1985), which won the Vera Bell Prize for poetry that year; Zabat (1989) and Sekhmet (Dumfries & Galloway Council, 2005); and a play about Jerry Rawlings, Service to Empire (2002). ‘I often address issues of lost and disputed territories, both psychological and physical’, she wrote in the anthology Dream State (1994). ‘The central body of my poetic work is unequivocally the love poetry which is addressed to both genders.’ Sekhmet begins with a roll-call of love and gratitude to friends, lovers, family across the world, to medics, and to the Ancestors, ‘who walked beside me when I needed them most and carried me forward when the terrain was too rough but never absolve me of the responsibility for my own life and identity.’
Maud Sulter returned to live in Scotland with her two young daughters, and then moved to Dumfries where she battled against cancer for several years, ‘knowing / that what is / bred in the / bone cannot / be escaped’. She died aged 47, survived by her ‘stoic mother Elsie’, her daughters and adopted son.