The display of exhibition posters from the 1970s and 80s in the stairwell of Bradford’s Impressions Gallery serve as a reminder of its important history, the same bygone era in which photographer Maud Sulter’s sensibility was formed and her practice developed. This was a time when radical politics informed art practice, particularly in photography, and when Northern cities like Bradford were home to renowned galleries with radical agendas. Another of these was Rochdale, where Sulter (1960-2008) worked in the 80s and early 90s alongside Jill Morgan, who developed a progressive exhibitions policy that made Rochdale Art Gallery a force to be reckoned with, and one well known for shows that celebrated the oppositional stance of some of the most significant feminist and working-class artists of the time. Sulter’s primary role at the gallery was to produce catalogues, elegantly designed and replete with juxtaposed images, information and analysis — words that equally well describe her own art practice.
In the hands of documentary photographers such as Robert Frank and Gordon Parks, powerful social and political messages become imbedded in the images themselves. The representational power of photography, however, can lead to heavy-handed propagandising in which both socio-political complexities and aesthetic subtleties are lost. This is a criticism often levelled at 70s and 80s photography, art that wore its politics brazenly on its sleeve. As a poet as well as a visual artist, Sulter understood metaphor and resonant imagery far too well to fall into such a trap. Better known as an artist than as a curator (she was responsible for at least sixteen exhibitions between 1985 and 1993, mainly at Rochdale Art Gallery but also at venues in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh), her photographic work is overviewed in Passion, along with her poetry and other writing. The exhibition is a testament to her determination to make histories visible, putting aesthetics in the service of ideological intention rather than the other way around.
In the series Zabat, Sulter presents exquisitely rendered studio portraits, casting nine creative black women in the roles of classical muses of antiquity. Zabat deploys the conventions of Victorian portrait photography, retaining its backdrops, props and poses but transforming them through the presence of a resolute black woman at their centre. There is, of course, a resolute black woman at the centre of all of Sulter’s work, the artist herself. Indeed, the artist herself features in some of the works (she appears in Zabat as Calliope, the muse of epic poetry), as well as the performance artist Delta Streete and the author Alice Walker. Sulter is also the subject of other works, including Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama, a series of self-portraits as Charles Baudelaire’s muse, the Haitian born actress Jeanne Duval.
Despite the undeniable iconic power of Sulter’s large format portrait works, for me, the strongest work in Passion is the series Syrcas and other smaller works (Poetry in Motion and Scots w’ Afro, for instance), in which Sulter appropriates and collages imagery of colonial empire, exoticised African artifacts, landscapes and people, vintage Alpine postcards or newspaper cuttings. She then re-photographs them in sophisticated montages that literally reconfigure and reconstruct histories, knowingly adapting the formal tropes of Modernist collage. They foreground the usually disguised or hidden ironies of Modernism’s Eurocentricity and delight in ‘the primitive’, another of its constructions. In an epigraph to a text on Clio, the muse of history, in the Zabat series, Sulter quotes Alice Walker: “As a black person and a woman I don’t read history for facts, I read it for clues”. In Syrcas and other collage and photomontage works these clues abound and are amplified in the poetry of Sulter’s juxtapositions.
A vintage chest that belonged to Sulter is utilised in the exhibition to show some of the Syrcas photocollages at their original scale. Presented alongside the large-scale framed re-photographed versions, they provide an intimate insight into the circumstances and process of their production. The objects, collages, photographs and texts brought together in Passion make a strong case for reclaiming Sulter’s significance, through which her presence is palpable. This is a deeply engaging exhibition that encourages its viewers to reflect on how representations in art and history are created, encoded and reinforced, but also how they can be deconstructed, challenged and remade.
Maud Sulter – Passion is at Impressions Gallery in Bradford until 2 June 2016.
Images: Maud Sulter, Syrcas photocollage originals; Scots w’ Afro, 1999. Photos by the author.
Derek Horton is an artist, writer and educator. He is currently Visiting Professor of Contemporary Art at the School of Art, Birmingham City University and a co-director of & Model gallery, Leeds.