'Zabat' – photographs by Maud Sulter

Maud Sulter (1960 – 2008) was a British visual artist, photographer, poet, publisher, and curator. Her 'Zabat' series from 1989 portrays Black creative women – including herself – as muses from Greek tradition, celebrating the cultural accomplishments of Black women.

Sulter was born in Glasgow, of Ghanian-Scottish heritage, and gained a master's degree in Photographic Studies at the University of Derby in 1990. Throughout her lifetime, Sulter's work was exhibited broadly and she received numerous awards. She had a strong interest in absence and presence, and her work as a cultural activist focussed on making Black women more visible through her art. She particularly wanted to address the lack of representation of the works and experiences of women and Black people in art institutions. Feeling that their contributions to culture were often marginalised, Sulter put them right at the centre of her work, reminding viewers of existences and experiences that others may have chosen to forget.

Her best-known photographic series Zabat was originally created for the Rochdale Art Gallery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography. Alongside a series of prose poems titled Zabat Narratives, it featured nine large-scale portraits of contemporary Black creative women from the UK, each staged as a muse of the arts from Greek tradition. Conventionally goddesses of the arts and sciences have been represented in western art as white women. Sulter challenged this by forefronting Black artists in her images, who each becomes the muse of their own artistic practice. The term 'Zabat', as defined by Sulter, references an ancient sacred dance performed by groups of women on occasions of power, and "incorporated the notion of a Black woman's rite of passage." She said:

The work was made for an art gallery. It was made to raise questions around Black presence in art galleries such as Rochdale and major collections such as the Tate.

Maud Sulter
Calliope, photograph, by Maud Sulter, 1989, Britain. Museum no. E.1796-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Each muse poses with symbolic attributes, against a dark backdrop and is presented within a heavy gold frame – visual references to traditional Victorian portraiture. Sulter herself appears as the sitter in Calliope (muse of epic poetry), representing both the French photography pioneer Nadar, as well as the French poet Charles Baudelaire's Haitian muse, Jeanne Duval. Little is known of Duval, but she is believed to have been very important to Baudelaire's work. The image is a comment on the presence and disappearance of Black creativity in history. On the table in front of Sulter is an example of a Daguerreotype – the first commercially successful photographic process.

Urania (portrait of Lubaina Himid), photograph, by Maud Sulter, 1989, Britain. Museum no. E.1793-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In another portrait, the British artist Lubaina Himid represents Urania, the muse of Astrology. Sulter had collaborated with Himid on a previous project at Rochdale Art Gallery, an installation titled New Robes for MaShulan (1987). During this project, an 18th-century portrait was X-ray scanned to reveal the presence of a Black enslaved man, who had at some point been painted over, once slavery was "no longer quite as fashionable", as Sulter said in a 1992 interview.

Terpsichore (portrait of Delta Streete), photograph, by Maud Sulter, 1989, Britain. Museum no. E.1795-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Terpsichore features performance artist Delta Streete as the muse of dance. Wearing a costume of her own design, and holding a piece of fool's gold in her right hand, she holds the gaze of the viewer, embodying the phrase from Zabat Narratives, "Survival is visibility". The costume originally featured in Streete's work, The Quizzing Class, which explored the relationship between enslaved women and their white mistresses. Here, the fool's gold speaks of colonial trade, the mining of gold and the production of sugar, emphasised by lines from Sulter's Zabat poem; "For there things you have laid your dignity in the mud of history and we shall not forget. For sugar in your tea and a maid to sit for your portraits. For gold to wear at your bosom and a maid whose image you shall have painted out of your family portrait when the presence has become a taint not a gilding."

Erato (portrait of Dionne Sparks), photograph, by Maud Sulter, 1989, Britain. Museum no. E.1798-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dionne Sparks, a London-based artist, worked as an assistant on the Zabat series, and also features as a sitter in the portrait Erato. As the muse of lyric poetry, Erato speaks of relationships, especially sisterhood. The opening line from the poem reads, "While a piece of each Black woman remembers the old ways of another place – when we enjoyed each other in a sisterhood of work and play and power – other pieces of us, less functional, eye one another with suspicion". Sparks said that Maud Sulter had an "incredible clarity of vision around what she was doing" and noted the "collective equality" that Maud Sulter brought with Zabat – equality amongst the women.

Polyhymnia (portrait of Dr Ysaye Barnwell), photograph, by Maud Sulter, 1989, Britain. Museum no. E.1792-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred song, features singer and composer Dr Ysaye Barnwell, who holds an ostrich egg in her hand. Sulter said the egg symbolised, "both the chicken and the egg – both the past, the present, and the future, a sort of continuity of fecundity and promise of both a memory of ourselves and a picturing of the future". Sulter uses Polyhymnia to remind viewers that "photography does not capture the real", as it obscures power relations and the preconceived 'knowledge' we bring to an image, which is influenced by dominant culture. She said:

The sacred song of our ancestors is not a single song. No, it is a melange of songs, fragments returning to wholeness and again fragmenting to create a new song out of the old song which is of course something that you will have to take my word for. Afterall here is a photograph to prove it.

Maud Sulter

The series was acquired by the V&A in 1991. You can see all nine photographs in Explore the Collections.

Written by Marie-Luise Mayer, Curatorial Fellow of Photographs sponsored by The Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach Foundation, with research by Donata Miller, Assistant Curator, Africa and Diaspora.

Header image:

Urania (portrait of Lubaina Himid), photograph, by Maud Sulter, 1989, Britain. Museum no. E.1793-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London