…in the Life and Works of Maud Sulter (1960-2008)

Celeste-Marie Bernier has recently joined the University of Edinburgh as a Personal Chair in English Literature/Professor of Black Studies. Working across Slavery Studies, African American Studies, and African Diasporic Studies, her books include: African American Visual Arts; Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination; Suffering and Sunset: World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin; Stick to the Skin: Representing the Body in Fifty Years of African American and Black British Art (1965-2015). She is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of American Studies and currently the Senior John Hope Franklin Fellow at the National Humanities Center.

Editorial note: With respect to Maud’s memory and the copyright held by the Maud Sulter Estate, we are not featuring an image with today’s post. You can view some of Maud’s work online, including a 2016 exhibition here and among the V&A’s collections here.

For award-winning Scottish poet, dramatist, photographer, collagist, novelist, and mixed-media artist of Ghanaian descent, Maud Sulter, a position of safety was a luxury only whites could afford. As she repeatedly urged, the promise of any and all protections from danger remained a painful illusion for the millions of women, children, and men who were repeatedly subjected to the violences and violations of centuries long histories of transatlantic slavery let alone contemporary illegal systems of human trafficking. Born in Glasgow in 1960, Sulter tragically passed away in Dumfries less than a decade ago in 2008 but not before she had lived a life-time in which she was exposed to dangers – physical, psychological, historical, social, political, ideological, emotional, imaginative, and cultural – on every side.

For Sulter, a virtuosic experimenter with every literary genre and visual medium, the answer to white racist forces that sought to invisibilize Black bodies and souls lay in the act of writing and the art of image-making. A source of hope in the face of despair, she repeatedly urged, “It is not possible to create a hierarchy of our artist fields as we are living as Blackwomen in the aftermath of slavery and imperialism. Therefore we need to recognise our creative practices as survival and press for their development from that position” (in Ardentia Verber, “Passion Blackwomen’s Creativity: An Interview with Maud Sulter,” Sparerib Magazine, February 1991, 8). Working to carve out a space for Black female agency, artistry, and authorship in the face of widespread systems of annihilation and alienation, she issued a rallying call to arms. Sulter urged individual and collective recognition of “our creative practices as survival” in a bid to inspire Blackwomen authors and artists to develop an experimental visual and textual “lexicon of liberation” (Donald Rodney) which would result in their own freedom. In her arsenal, she worked with every tool necessary to do justice to her conviction that, “Our body became to an absolute degree not our own. It was branded, raped, beaten, worked for every penny” (Sulter, “The Body in Art,” in Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter, Claudette Johnson: Pushing Back the Boundaries, Hebden Bridge: Urban Fox Press, 1990, 10-12). At the heart of Sulter’s practice lies a determination to expose the corporeal and spiritual abuses enacted against African diasporic women’s bodies not only during the centuries long history of transatlantic slavery but as a result of its traumatizing legacies that live on.

Over the decades, Sulter succeeded in reclaiming, reinventing, recreating, and reimaging to reimagine the “branded, raped, beaten” bodies of Blackwomen, enslaved and free by not only writing plays, poetry, and essays but by also creating mixed-media photographs, collages, and installations. A hard-hitting case in point, Les Bijoux is a photographic work consisting of nine self-portraits she created in 2002, a few years before she died. An unequivocal declaration of independence, here she staged her choreographed resistances to the exoticization, objectification, and commodification as well as the anthropological appropriation, scientific classification, and criminalized profiling of Black women. A series of full colour, exquisitely executed, and monumentally-sized prints she exhibited in a gridded formation, Sulter variously represents her face in full frontal and profiled view within these head and shoulders portraits. She carefully draws attention to the ways in which her own physiognomy and upper body alternately appear and disappear by ensuring that her black hair and predominantly black-coloured clothing remain camouflaged. By comparison, her facial features and skin are starkly exposed against her uniformly black backdrop.

Across this work, she pulls no punches by choosing to circumscribe each of her portraits, symbolically and literally, within a white frame. Sulter visualises back to photography’s pretensions toward authenticity and verisimilitude by refusing to conceal the bleed-through of liquid ink that appears at the edges of her photographs. Leaving her audiences no choice but to confront the constructedness and artificiality of her images, she destabilizes, wrong-foots, and unhinges the hegemonic power of photography as a white male originated practice which has historically colluded in the objectification of Blackwomen’s bodies and the invisibilization of their lives.

A daring decision, Sulter adorns herself in gorgeous dresses that have been made from elaborately patterned fabric, delicate feathers, and sequined materials in Les Bijoux. She also wears intricately designed jewellery which consists of uniquely designed earrings and ornate necklaces that have been made from pearls, diamonds, emeralds, and gold. On the surface, Sulter seemingly runs the risk of colluding in her own dehumanization as an objectified Black female subject who has been transformed into a spectacle as readily available for white consumption, gratification, and ownership. She also appears to expose her vulnerability and entrap her body yet further due to the incontestable symbolism of her necklaces which function as gilded versions of the neck braces and shackles that were worn by enslaved people and which circulated in pro- and anti- slavery iconography centuries earlier. Probe deeper, however, and Sulter’s multi-layered strategies of radical dissidence immediately become clear. According to her “lexicon of liberation,” these physical adornments gain heightened emotional and political currency if examined in light of her own experiences. On a visit to the “islands off the coast of West Africa,” she readily confides that, “in a handful of sand one can still uncover beads torn from our bodies before an internment which culminated in transportation by ship’” (in Deborah Cherry, “With Her Fingers on the Political Pulse: The Transnational Curating of Maud Sulter,” in Politics in a Glass Case: Feminisms, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions, eds. Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013, 206). For Sulter, the varying types of necklaces or “bijoux” decorating her fragile neck – and some of which she holds in her clenched fist in a vindication of her determination to break free – testify not only to centuries of Black female disempowerment in enslavement and sexual trafficking but to Black female empowerment in self-conscious artistry.

Across this series, Sulter bears witness to the Black woman’s right to self-fashioning as she artfully visualizes back to the missing objects that had been “torn from our bodies.” In one of her full-frontal portraits included in Les Bijoux, Sulter reinforces the visual drama of her direct confrontation with the viewer by wearing a necklace made from enlarged mottled beads that she holds in her fist. No glittering gems, the scratched and scarred surfaces of these aged beads confirm beyond all doubt that they have been salvaged from the West African coastline. These may well signify the missing lives of Blackwomen prior to their “internment” on slave ships. In this portrait, a tear rolls down Sulter’s cheek. Here she provides her audiences with no detached barrier from which to bear witness to Blackwomen’s pain.

Far from the whole story, Sulter immediately shores up her visual resistance to the circulation of Blackwomen’s bodies not only as enslaved property but as medical specimens, bodies of evidence, and political weapons within an appropriating photographic lens in Les Bijoux. She manipulates her physiognomy to convey a gamut of emotions according to which she visibilises invisibilised Blackwomen’s histories, memories, and stories on her own terms. Adopting variously playful, humorous, thoughtful, unreadable, confrontational, defiant, authoritative, traumatized, anguished, distraught, and psychologically empowered facial expressions, she succeeds not only in bearing witness to missing stories but in testifying to Blackwomen’s individualism. For Sulter, the “bijoux” are not the precious gems encircling her throat but the precious lives of women, enslaved and free, that have been invisibilised out of white western history and art history but which can be made to live again solely via a Blackwoman artist’s experimental visual practices. Dramatically to the fore within Sulter’s cutting-edge use of self-portraiture is her visual and textual commitment to this “whole notion of the disappeared.” “I’m very interested in absence and presence in the way that particularly black women’s experience and black women’s contribution to culture are so often erased and marginalized,” she confirms (in Barbara Thompson, Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008, 316). For Sulter, Les Bijoux underscores her realisation that, “it’s important for me as an individual, and obviously as a black woman artist, to put black women in the centre of the frame – both literally within the photographic image, but also within the cultural institutions where our work operates” (in Thompson, 316).

“Your spur to creation is the desire to communicate,” Maud Sulter urged throughout her lifetime (in Thompson, 316). Across her bodies of work, she lays bare her conviction regarding the politically, socially, and culturally transformative power of art-making. For Sulter, the experimental bodies of work of Blackwomen artists as imagined by Blackwomen, realised by Blackwomen, and executed and disseminated among Blackwomen audiences, was the sole way in which to ensure individual and collective survival. Writing of Blackwomen’s art practices as necessarily forged from “Fragments reformed as notes from the underground,” Maud Sulter and Lubaina Himid, an internationally renowned Black British painter and long-term collaborator, waged war on the racist myopia of a white dominant artworld. “Historically there has been little space given to us to engage with each other about issues of artistic creativity,” they declared. They were in no doubt that, “It is symptomatic of the hegemonic and anti-intellectual state of the art that knowledgeable Blackwomen theorists are marginalized and forums for their work are virtually non-existent” (in Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter, “ Sistahs,” in Himid and Sulter eds., “Passion Blackwomen’s Creativity of the African Diaspora,” Feminist Art News, Vol. 2. No. 8, 1988, n.p.). Signalling their rejection of an unequal state of affairs that endures to this day, they exposed the enduring stranglehold exerted by the ideological, political, and cultural investment maintained by curators and directors in eradicating Blackwomen’s art practices from the official record.

“Invisibilisation comes from strange quarters. History is written by the few, tales are often told to keep things are they are,” Sulter and Himid confirm. As a result, they issue a warning to which they ask Blackwomen creators to take heed: “Change can be dangerous and humiliating for those maintaining the status quo” (in Himid, “Freedom and Change: she who writes herstory rewrites history A statement from The Elbow Room,” in The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, ed. Rasheed Araeen, London: South Bank Centre, 1989, 123).

For Sulter, no less than for Himid, a commitment to effecting social, political, and artistic “change” in the face of any and all signs of danger remained at a premium. Among the survivors, they are only two among the millions of past, present, and future Blackwomen artists who continue to risk their lives on a daily basis in order to provide a blueprint for social, cultural, and political revolution in a current era. Sulter and Himid’s declaration, “We must record our own herstories, span continents, go beyond fixed beliefs impressed by the dominant hegemony,” lives on (in Sulter, Echo: Works by Women Artists 1850-1940, London: Tate Publishing, 1991, 18). In the lifelong work that is the determination to memorialize the unmemorialized lives of “branded, raped, beaten” Blackwomen’s bodies, we must recognise that any and all positions of safety in a twenty-first century era are built on persecutory foundations in which all of us are at risk. As Sulter recognized, when any individual is discriminated against on racial, gender, sexual, class or national grounds, humanity itself is in danger.