Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council
About this resource
How can photography be used to tell alternative histories and raise awareness of important issues?
This resource explores the photographs of Scottish-Ghanaian artist Maud Sulter who subverted traditional representations of women in Western art in order to explore and highlight the histories of black women and the black diaspora in Europe.
The resource supports students in:
exploring the work of artist Maud Sulter
analysing the visual elements used in portraits
learning about and discussing themes relating to black identity and black history
thinking about representation and how we can use portraits and self-portraits to explore our identity and raise awareness of issues that are important to us
This Art and Design resource offers a series of activities that can be used together as a lesson plan or as individual components to integrate into your own scheme of work. It is devised for Key Stage 4 and 5/CfE Levels 4 and senior phase students, though could also be adapted for KS 3/CfE Level 3 students.
Art and design - Evaluate and analyse creative works - Actively engage in the creative process of art - Know about great artists and understand the historical and cultural development of their art forms - Produce creative work, explore ideas
Art and design
KS 4 - Develop ideas through investigations, demonstrating critical understanding of sources - Refine work by exploring ideas, selecting and experimenting with appropriate media, materials, techniques and processes - Record ideas, observations and insights relevant to intentions as work progresses - Present a personal and meaningful response that realises intentions and demonstrates understanding of visual language
Art and design
Level 4 - I have continued to experiment with a range of media and technologies, handling them with control and assurance to create images and objects. I can apply my understanding of the properties of media and of techniques to specific tasks (EXA 4-02a) - I can use the visual elements and concepts with sensitivity to express qualities and relationships and convey information, thoughts and feelings. I can use my skills and creativity to generate original ideas in my expressive and design work (EXA 4-03a) - Having chosen personal themes and developed my own ideas from a range of stimuli, I can express and communicate my ideas, thoughts and feelings through 2D and 3D work (EXA 4-05a) - I can analyse art and design techniques, processes and concepts, make informed judgements and express considered opinions on my own and others' work (EXA 4-07a)
Art and design - Students use their knowledge about the work of other artists to enrich and inform their work through analysis and evaluation - Students use a variety of processes - Students evaluate their work through discussion - Students explore, experiment with and apply the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
About Maud Sulter (1960–2008)
Maud Sulter was born in the Gorbals in Glasgow. Her mother was Scottish and her father was Ghanaian. (In her poem Circa 1930 she suggests that these two cultures 'are not as disparate as they might / at first seem. Clan-based societies / With long memories and global diasporas.')
Sulter used a range of media including text, photography and performance to explore the history and continuing presence of the black diaspora in Europe. Fiercely critical of the omission of women and black people from the history of art and their lack of representation in galleries and museums she wanted to 'put black women back in the centre of the frame'.
'This whole notion of the disappeared, I think, is something that runs through my work. I'm very interested in absence and presence in the way that particularly black women's experience and black women's contribution to culture is so often erased and marginalised.' – Maud Sulter
Look at Maud Sulter's photograph Terpsichore with your students.
Ask them to discuss their first impressions and reactions to it without knowing anything about who made it.
Use these questions as prompts if helpful.
Describe what you can see in the photograph
Is it a conventional style of portrait? Does it look like other portraits you have seen before?
How is the woman dressed?
When do you think the style of her clothes dates from?
Are you surprised to see a black woman dressed like this?
Who would you expect to see in historical portraits wearing this type of elaborate dress and wig?
What does the photograph make you think and feel?
The photograph depicts a black woman. The woman is shown in a three-quarter-length pose often seen in portrait paintings and formal photographic portraits.
Although the woman is conventionally posed it is far from a conventional portrait.
She is dressed in an elaborate eighteenth-century dress and wig. This makes the portrait immediately striking as we don't expect to see a black woman dressed in clothing that we generally associate with the eighteenth-century white aristocracy.
The sitter looks directly and unsmilingly at the viewer.
Discussion: eighteenth-century portraiture
Look at an example of eighteenth-century portraiture with your students. Ask them to compare this with the portrait by Maud Sulter and to discuss the similarities and differences.
The artworks are similar in that both women are shown in three-quarter length poses and are dressed in elaborate eighteenth-century clothing. But Maud Sulter's photograph shows a black woman while the sitter in the painting is white.
Pose and props
The pose and body language of the two women are very different. The pose of the woman in the painted portrait is relaxed. She leans on the cushioned arm of her chair with her right arm away from her body in a pose that seems to invite the viewer into the painting. She is smiling.
The pose of the woman in Maud Sulter's portrait is more formal. Her right arm crosses her body and she doesn't smile.
In both portraits, the women are holding an object. It is common in historical portraiture for sitters to be holding or surrounded by objects (or props) that provide clues about their character, abilities or status.
The woman in the painting holds a sheet of music suggesting she is educated and musical. The woman in Maud Sulter's portrait holds what looks like a gold-coloured stone.
Discussion: what is Maud Sulter's message?
Sulter adopts the conventions of eighteenth-century portraiture but subverts them by presenting a black subject.
Ask your students to look again at Sulter's photograph Terpsichore and analyse in more depth why they think Maud Sulter has presented the sitter in this way and what message she is putting across.
Use these prompts to help get the discussion going.
Why do you think the woman wears the dress and style of eighteenth-century portraiture?
What do we know of the lives of black people in the eighteenth century?
What do you think the lump of gold-coloured stone, that the sitter holds, might symbolise?
What does the title mean?
Terpsichore, the title used for the artwork, is the Greek muse of poetry and dancing, one of nine muses from Greek religion. (It was common in eighteenth-century portraits of women to reference Greek goddesses. For example, in a portrait held at Brooke Robinson Museum, a young woman is depicted as Ceres, goddess of agriculture.)
The title is appropriate, as Terpsichore is a portrait of a performance artist and dancer called Delta Streete.
Delta Streete created the costume that she is wearing in the portrait for a dance performance and installation called The Quizzing Class. The performance explored the relationship between enslaved women and their white mistresses.
Symbolism and meaning
The gold-coloured rock that Streete holds in her hand is fool's gold, which is the nickname for pyrite, a brass-yellow mineral that superficially looks like gold but is worthless.
Sulter uses the fool's gold to symbolise the colonial sugar trade, alluding to the slavery and servitude that many black people faced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A prose poem written to accompany the portrait includes the words:
'Fool's gold is all the sugar cane held. Its sweetness rots the tooth the root of the tree the root of creation. She holds it in her black hand.'
The white dress
The poem also references and pays homage to the thousands of enslaved people who died while being transported from Africa to the British colonies in the West Indies and America.
'Slaughter lay a train of bones from the gold coast to the east coast to the Caribbean and other lines of transportation in between. These bones calcified the ocean bed which now reeks with the effluent of post-industrial carnage.'
The whiteness of the dress that Delta Streete wears and the white wig seem to symbolise the 'trail of bones' as well as the white enslaving classes.
Discussion: Maud Sulter's Zabat series
Terpsichore is one of nine portrait photographs in Maud Sulter's portrait series Zabat. The portraits celebrate the cultural accomplishments of black women.
Discuss the sitters and how they are shown in the photographs with your students.
Who is shown in the photographs?
What do the titles of the photographs reference?
How are the photographs similar? How are they different?
How are the sitters shown – what props they are holding, how they are dressed, how they are posed?
About the Zabat series
The Zabat photographs date from 1989 and were commissioned by Rochdale Art Gallery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography. The word 'Zabat' references an ancient ritual dance performed by women on occasions of power.
The title of each artwork is the name of one of the nine muses from Greek religion. The muses were goddesses of the arts and sciences and were traditionally represented in the history of Western art as white women.
All the women in Maud Sulter's photographs are creative black women. By associating her sitters with the muses Maud Sulter challenges the invisibility of creative black women in art history and culture.
Alongside the photographs, Sulter produced a book of poetry, Zabat: Poetics of a Family Tree, and a series of nine prose poems – one for each portrait – called Zabat Narratives. In these accompanying texts, Sulter explores some of the themes and thoughts that inspired the work.
Photographic conventions: poses, dress and props
In the photographs, Sulter retains the traditions of Victorian photographic portraiture with a backdrop, pose and props; but the portraits are transformed with African clothes and non-European props.
Sulter takes a different approach to photographing each of her sitters.
Urania, a portrait of painter Lubaina Himid, is formally posed. Urania is the muse of astronomy and is traditionally depicted holding a celestial globe and compass. Himid wears a dress made from African Adire (tie-dyed) fabric and holds two astronomical discs.
In contrast, author and feminist Alice Walker (the sitter for Phalia) is more casually posed. (The photograph looks almost like a snapshot.) Phalia is the muse of comedy and bringer of flowers, and Alice Walker is photographed with a huge bunch of flowers with the vibrant colours of the Ghanaian flag.
Individual research activity
Task students with choosing one of the photographs from the Zabat series to respond to and research in more depth. (This would work well as a homework sketchbook project. Students could paste or draw an image of their chosen photograph into their sketchbooks and annotate the image with notes.)
Activity prompts for students:
Describe the photograph.
Why have you chosen the photograph? (Why do you like it? What does it mean to you?)
Find out more about the sitter (if possible).
Find out more about the muse of the title and the props or attributes associated with the muse.
Analyse the pose, dress and props used by Sulter in the portrait and why you think she has chosen these.
The photographs in the Zabat series as well as other photographic portraits by Sulter are presented in elaborate gold frames. To Sulter, the frames form part of the artwork.
Discuss as a class the impact of the frames on how we see the photographs, and why Sulter might have decided to frame her portraits in this way.
What type of artworks do we usually expect to see in gold frames?
How do the gold frames affect how we look at the photographs?
Why do you think Maud Sulter has chosen to present the photographs in elaborate gold frames?
We generally associate elaborate gold frames with historical paintings. (Walk through any museum or art gallery with a historic painting collection and you will see the walls lined with portraits of wealthy or important people in frames like these.)
They add grandeur and importance to the image and its sitter. We expect to see pictures of important or wealthy people framed in this way – and these frames make us aware that we are looking at someone important.
By using gold frames Sulter reminds us of the tradition of historical portraiture, presenting the photographs within the context of this tradition.
Like the props and clothing that Sulter uses in her Zabat photographs, the frame is also something of a symbol.
'It's important for me as an individual, and obviously, as a black woman artist, to put black women back in the centre of the frame – both literally within the photographic image, but also within the cultural institutions where our work operates.' – Maud Sulter
To Maud Sulter the frames around the photographs act as a symbol representing the wider context of art history and culture and how black women exist within this context.
Do the artworks, within gold frames, make you rethink images you see in museums and galleries?
Who gets to be in the frames?
Maud Sulter questioned the inequality of representation in our galleries and in culture and art history more generally.
In this video, the musicians express similar frustrations to those that Maud Sulter addresses in her work, in relation to who we see celebrated in our galleries and museums.
(Please note: the video includes swearing and language that may be offensive to some people and unsuitable for younger students.)
More artists to explore
Like Maud Sulter, other contemporary artists have also addressed the lack of representation of Black people in art history and culture.
American artist Kehinde Wiley places himself in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings, highlighting the absence of Black people in art history.
'His images – as part quotation, part intervention – raise questions about power, privilege, identity, and above all highlight the absence or relegation of Black figures within European art.’ – The National Gallery exhibition text
Wiley was commissioned in 2017 to paint Barack Obama, becoming the first Black artist to paint an official portrait of a president of the United States.
In her mixed media artwork From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction British artist Sonia Boyce explores the relationship between her own self-image and the one presented by a predominantly white society through the mass media.
In the artwork, Boyce uses photo-booth self-portraits and juxtaposes them with images that reference the offensive and patronising stereotypes used in relation to Black people in the white media from Hollywood to comic books.
British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien also addresses the absence of Black people in our galleries and museums and in our histories.
His 2021 exhibition Lesson of the Hour at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art explores and celebrates the life and work of visionary African American orator, philosopher, intellectual, and self-liberated freedom-fighter Frederick Douglass.
The format of Julien’s 10-screen installation, which imagines episodes of Douglass’s life and interweaves these with footage from recent times, purposefully evokes a nineteenth-century salon hang of paintings. In this way, Isaac Julien like Maud Sulter questions who gets to be in the frame.
The following suggestions provide ideas for creative activities inspired by some of the themes explored in this resource.
Who would you put in the frame?
Task students with creating an artwork about someone they think is important and should be celebrated.
The person could be a relative or a friend or someone they admire. They might have had an interesting life, for example, immigrated to this country from somewhere else or they might be a talented musician or dancer or artist.
It could be a photographic portrait. Encourage students to think about how they would pose their sitter. What clothing, props, and background would they use to suggest something about their life?
It could be a mixed media or collage artwork consisting of images, texts, and objects. The text could relate to the story of their subject, could express what the student feels about the person, or like Maud Sulter's prose poems it could be a creative piece exploring aspects of their sitter's life.
Or it could be a sculpture. Like the ornate gold-framed portraits in galleries, portrait statues in public spaces usually remember or celebrate wealthy, powerful, white men. Artist Thomas J. Price's bronze sculptures of ordinary black men and women subvert our assumptions about who we expect to see celebrated in sculptures. Price has said that he wants his sculptures to be ‘an opportunity for people to connect emotionally with an image of someone they might not have noticed before.’
Portraits with a message
As well as celebrating black creative women, Maud Sulter used her Zabat series to highlight the absence of black women in art history and culture as well as in contemporary cultural institutions.
Challenge students to create photographic portraits or a self-portrait that raises awareness of an issue that is important to them.
Students should think about what their message is. (It might help to write down words that they associate with their message.)
Who will they photograph? How will they pose their sitters? What backgrounds will add to the message? Are there any clothing or props that would help put the message across?
Maud Sulter used Greek Muses as the theme for her Zabat series to represent art history and culture (the muses have traditionally been represented as white women). Encourage your students to think about how they could use symbolic representations
Sulter framed her portraits in elaborate gold frames. How could your students use the presentation to put their message across? The portraits don't have to be designed for conventional gallery presentation – they could for example be on placards (suggesting protest) or posters.
Maud Sulter was fascinated by Haitian-born actress, model, and dancer Jeanne Duval. Duval is most famously known as the mistress of Charles Baudelaire (an important nineteenth-century French writer and poet). She was also an inspiration to artists including Manet and Courbet.
Sulter became interested in Duval when she found out about a daguerreotype – an early form of photography – that had been discovered in the studio of nineteenth-century photography pioneer Felix Nadar and captioned as 'unidentified black woman'.
Sulter believed that the woman in the photograph was Jeanne Duval and was determined to give Duval back her place in art history. She researched Duval and posed as her in several artworks including Calliope from the Zabat series and Le Chevelure 2002.
Task your students with creating a self-portrait in which they re-imagine themselves as someone else. This could be someone from history or someone in the public eye.
What aspects of their chosen subject's life do they want to address in their self-portrait?
How could they explore this using pose, dress, and props?
They could look at the work of artist Cindy Sherman who uses photography and self-portraiture (as well as costumes, makeup, and props) to present herself as historical figures, women in imagined films, or people that she sees around her. Her artworks often address how women are seen and presented in the media.
This resource from the National Portrait Gallery provides some ideas for exploring Cindy Sherman's photographs.
They could also look at the Rediscovering Black Portraiture series of photographs begun by opera singer Peter Braithwaite in 2020 during the Covid lockdown.
In the photographs, Braithwaite reworks historical depictions of black subjects, through self-portraits and with the help of domestic props and costumes. Through reimagining representations from the eleventh century to the present day, he invites viewers to consider how people of colour have and should be seen and portrayed.