15 January to 2 April 2016
by FRANCESCA WADE
The words of Maud Sulter’s 1994 poem Blood Money resound ethereally around the small gallery at Autograph-ABP that is currently displaying an exhibition of her extraordinary photomontage series Syrcas (1993). Recited on repeat in a lilting Scottish voice, the poem tells the story of Monique, “a woman of African and European descent”, who left Cameroon for France in 1926, at the age of 12. She became a successful acrobat, married Kwesi, a German-African, and had a daughter, Helga, a budding artist who “was good with things metal, like scalpels and scissors, and made pretty pictures to hang on the walls of their pretty home”. Then the second world war began. Kwesi was interned in a concentration camp and then killed and Monique subsequently died, leaving Helga an orphan.
Monique is fictional, but she might well not be. (“Monique may be near you right now,” wrote Sulter. “She haunts me.”) The 16 pieces in Syrcas (the Welsh word for circus; the images might even be those made by the circus performer’s daughter) represent the artist’s search for characters such as Monique – the black women whose stories are lost in history. In particular, Syrcas challenges history’s exclusion of black people from narratives of the Holocaust, which so often ignore what Sulter described as “the constant black presence in Germany since the 15th century”.
Sulter, who was born in Glasgow in 1960 to Scottish and Ghanaian parents, and died in 2008, devoted her career (which spanned art, poetry, curating and publishing) to restoring black women to the centre of the frame, “both literally within the photographic image, but also within the cultural institutions where our work operates”. Syrcas uses unexpected juxtapositions of found imagery to challenge the boundaries of conventional western art tradition, and the historical narratives we may think we know.
The 16 works that comprise Syrcas are hardly bigger than postcards, and are displayed here within plenty of space, positioned around several pillars as well as on the gallery walls, to allow for intimate viewing. Two print enlargements are on show alongside the small, scrapbook-style originals, on which every one of the artist’s careful snips is discernible up close. Sulter uses photomontage to play on the tension within contexts, disrupting European images by covering them with objects and artworks from African tradition.
The series is subdivided into five sets of images: Noir et Blanc, Dumas and Duval, Helas l'heroine, Voyager and Malheureusement. In Noir et Blanc, a set of four postcard-perfect images of generic Alpine landscapes – lakes, mountains, forests, chalets – are overlaid with African masks and fertility dolls, which loom in the foreground, conspicuous in their solitude. It is a disorienting experience: the conical heads of masks blend in with the trees and mountains, but disturb each image’s symmetry. In one scene, a fertility doll with elongated breasts and neck breastfeeds a baby, whose foot almost kicks the spire of a church in the serene valley above which they are elegantly poised. Sulter creates a palimpsest in which cultures separated both by geography and time are united, in uncomfortable but strangely compelling collisions.
Helas l’heroine moves the site of Sulter’s intervention from the European landscape to the western art canon, placing African masks on the heads of figures from well-known European artworks. In Mme Laura est chez elle, the image of George Sand by 19th-century photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) is obscured by an Ogbodo mask of the Igala people of Nigeria. In Vous parlez de moi?, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Robert Shafto is given a Fanti doll and an Ashanti terracotta head, while in Quelques instants plus tard, Monique cherchait sa brosse à cheveux, a mask of the Punu people of Central Africa covers the head of a woman, who reaches for a western-style helmet, in Angelica Kauffmann’s 1789 Portrait of Countess Catherine Skawronska. These composite images are witty and bold, injecting new meaning into celebrated works through unknowing collaboration across centuries. The amusing titles – some invented by Sulter, others apparently adopted from a set of Linguaphone records – add a layer of absurdity to the intrigue.
In other images, Sulter’s playful challenge to the cultural, especially artistic, tradition from which black women have been excluded is made explicit: in Malheureusement, pendant que nous discutions … terracotta heads are projected on to an image of an Italian Renaissance concert group, while in Malheureusement, parce que tu parlais d’anges, a white man’s face is obscured, while a small Mangbetu reliquary figure stands curiously in the centre of the picture, looking out at the viewer. In the background, a female nude (Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre’s 1749 painting Jupiter et Io) gazes away from the frame, while an elephant hoof stands proudly in the foreground. In Malheureusement, comme d’habitude je comparais la couleur de mon rouge à lèvres et celle de mon foulard, Sulter uses Charles-Joseph Natoire’s 1740 Allegory of the Arts – Painting as background. A palette at the bottom references traditional art, while cherubs sit sculpting a bust. From outside the frame, the hand of a black woman protrudes inwards, pointing at a Dan mask in the centre, refusing to remain relegated to the margins.
Sulter’s whole artistic oeuvre turns on these themes of identity, exclusion and black women’s experience: a particularly powerful work is Zabat, her series of portraits of living black women writers and artists as the nine muses, which include Sulter herself as Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. The theme of missing histories is key also to her multimedia installation Hysteria (1991), which tells the story of a 19th-century black female artist who sailed from the Americas to Europe, where she established a successful career as a sculptor before vanishing from historical record.
Sulter also posed for a series of portraits as Jeanne Duval, the “Black Venus”, Charles Baudelaire’s enigmatic muse and mistress, whom Sulter described as “a beautiful black woman who inspired Baudelaire to write some of the finest poetry and prose poems ever written”. Duval was a figure to whom Sulter returned throughout her career, and she appears within Syrcas in the striking diptych Duval et Dumas. In Dumas, a photograph of Alexandre Dumas by Nadar is overlaid by an elephant, whose ear and trunk draw a sharp divide across the frame, hiding the novelist’s smiling face. Duval centres on another photograph by Nadar, entitled Unknown Woman, which Sulter chooses, radically, to identify as Jeanne Duval herself, reclaiming the erased identity of a woman lost in history. The black-and-white image of “Duval” supersedes another Alpine landscape and a vibrant colour photograph of Ishan men engaged in a traditional dance, the incongruous juxtaposition drawing all attention to the unknown woman, who gazes out powerfully, with the hint of a smile, anonymous no longer. “She stared at me,” said Sulter, “willing me to give her a name, an identity, a voice”.
The images of Syrcas are, by turns enigmatic, charming, amusing and disturbing. In the most threatening image, a motor car and a train on its way to a concentration camp are set against a blue sea and sky, while in between them a sinister mask (described as a “skin-covered headpiece”) grins, its metal teeth glinting. Sulter described Syrcas, which was created in part in response to more recent instances of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda, as a “testimony to the black experience within the Holocaust and it’s also hopefully functioning in the present as a reminder of individual responsibility”. The series represented Britain at Africus, the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale, and interest in Sulter’s work remains strong eight years after her untimely death – Syrcas and several of her other works were exhibited at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow in 2015. The epigraph to a bold and essential career might be her rallying cry at the end of Blood Money, a powerful plea for peace and unity among all people:
Now, close your eyes and imagine a German.
Close your eyes and imagine,
a Belgian, a Muslim, a Protestant, a Croat, a Celt, an Afghani …
don’t stop, the list is as endless as the one human race.