‘Maud Sulter: Passion’, by Deborah Cherry

Maud Sulter: PassionAs Deborah Cherry has observed, Maud Sulter’s work highlights the interconnections between her birth country, Scotland, and her Ghanaian heritage.1 Sulter’s art, journalism and critical and creative writing are anchored in Black women’s experiences, exploring the intersections between land, race and identity. As Sulter observes in Let It Be Told: Essays by Black Women in Britain: ‘Being Black is not a problem. The problem lies in the threatening racism, institutionalized and individual which seeks to destroy Black people not only within larger white communities such as Britain or the USA but globally as well’.2

In Maud Sulter: Passion, Cherry opens up a space to celebrate Sulter’s pivotal artistic and literary contributions in her poetry and photography: ‘Born in Glasgow, Sulter pushed English to say what she wanted, and she also wrote in Scots vernacular to speak about urban experiences in her home town’ (p. 10). Sulter made her mark as a poet, historian, journalist, and publisher with her own imprint called Urban Fox Press (p. 9). Between writing about LGBT+ politics and Black feminism, Sulter devoted a generous amount of her time in curating exhibitions and galleries, and writing poetry that deliberately challenged the history written by the white colonisers (p. 9). For instance, in Sulter’s multimedia instillation ‘HYSTERIA’, she gives a voice to the erased and neglected Black women’s experiences and life journeys where she creates a fictional adaptation of the real life of the nineteenth-century artist Edmonia Lewis (p. 13).

In the interview featured in Maud Sulter: Passion Mark Haworth-Booth asks Sulter about the reasons behind her choice of titles for her poems: ‘The word that you’ve found, Zabat, suggests some of this lost history, but where did you find that word?’ Sulter’s answers is intriguing and reveals the depth and richness of her thoughts:

Well, one of the places where I found that particular word was in a very large tome called the The Women’s Encyclopedia of myths and Secrets (Walker, 1983), and in that the definition was given as ‘a sacred dance performed by groups of thirteen, an occasion of power, the possible origin of the Witches’ Sabbath’, and I wanted to take that further so I incorporated the notion of a Black woman’s rite of passage, and from the period of the Egyptian 18th dynasty which also commented upon another moment in history (p. 113).

Cherry’s project is a tribute to Sulter’s legacy and aims to reach a wider creative community to further promote the importance of exposure – essential in the case of creators whose work is not easily pigeonholed – that leads to empowerment and liberation of the marginalised. Cherry’s volume carries a selection of poems, photographs from exhibitions, and an interview with Sulter recorded at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Sulter navigates the space between Ghana and Scotland in a poem called ‘Circa 1930’:

Repetition being also a dual cultural trait it is
Perhaps not inappropriate to rechant that the rigid
And conformist cultures of Ghana and Scotland
Are both Clan-based societies with long memories
And global diaspora. (p. 139)

In her creative journey and journalism, Sulter collaborated extensively and frequently with other African artists, musicians and poets to amplify the voices of the diaspora. As Cherry notes: ‘There is a double movement in Sulter’s work: African artworks collected and cherished in diaspora speak back to appropriated images and stolen objects’ (p. 15). To give well-deserved space to Sulter’s photography, Cherry features imprints in black and white colours from ‘HYSTERIA’ where Sulter and other young Black models are posing to the camera and dressing elegantly (pp. 126–129). Sulter was aware of the revolutionary blueprint she was developing in her work, and her self-actualised journey is featured in her poems and photography in ways that offer a profound example of a community space which uplifts and is devoted to advocating for the justice for the excluded and overlooked. Sulter states:

See me, I’m a heroic poet and I don’t care who knows it. And I chose my own kind and in doing so apparently consigned myself to a footnote in history. And so you know, if that is the choice I would do it again. Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn. (p. 39a)

When Scottish African literature has been explored in recent years, it is primarily through the lens of the great work of the Scottish Nigerian lesbian poet Jackie Kay. Sulter arguably offers a more confrontational critical approach to the narratives of Black women that is geared towards accountability, empowerment and a radical exposure of the practice of racism in Scotland, with the support of her partner, Tanzanian British artist and professor Lubaina Himid. Sulter is clear about her creative and political purposes:

I wanted to create a forum where different art forms, different artistic practices, could come together under the umbrella of the Blackwomen’s Creativity Project, and where Black women artists and writers, creative women, could meet in terms of exhibitions, or perhaps performance events, and ultimately to create some sort of documentation of our work during the 1980s. This in fact led to the publication called Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity which I edited, and which has just been published. (p. 112)

In addition, Sulter’s poetry speaks strongly of self-validation, agency and Black feminism. The longing for intimacy and physical touch is expressed vividly in her poetry collection As a Black Woman. There is a call for liberation and active emotional and mental healing on every page. Sulter has an exceptional way of capturing the selfhood of Black women and their legacy:

As a Blackwoman
Every act is a personal act
Every act is a political act
As a Black woman
The personal is political
Holds no empty rhetoric.3

In Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish Women Poets, Rebecca Wilson interviews a range of Scottish and Irish women writers. In an attempt to showcase the wide variety of voices, Wilson as an interviewer builds her questions around the notions of selfhood and culture, and the relationship between race and writing. Through Wilson’s witty approach she manages to conduct insightful and provocative interviews. In her conversation with Sulter, Wilson asks the author about her ties to other Black writers: ‘How do you see your work developing in relation to the larger context of Black women writing’ Sulter’s reply is beautifully weighted and deserves to be quoted at length:

Having taken two or three years to complete another collection I’ve found that the work gets harder, not easier. One becomes more critical. One reads more. I have more contact with other writers on a one-to-one basis. Women whose creativity has spiritually influenced me include the African Americans Ysaye Barnwell, Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, emotionally supporting sistahs such as my Surinamese friend from Holland Gloria Wekker, and of course, Lubaina Himid, the most committed and radical Blackwoman artist of our generation. And with the work of Black women writers being more freely available here, I’d like to see those networks continue to exist, whether it’s poetry or simply a letter from a friend. I’d also like to see the hard work that’s been done, say, in the last ten years, in terms of getting Black women’s work published, continue. And for us to have a more international perspective on that, which means engaging in lots of politics, like what language we write in, which tongues we have access to and which tongues we don’t. I’m very optimistic that we can continue to do that, and that in five years’ time, when this book’s been superseded by another one, there’ll be five more Black women poets to be included in it – that each time the work of the foremothers will be recognized as well. Because that’s a problem, too. It’s very easy to imagine, if you sit here in Britain, that Alice Walker started writing five years ago, when the woman’s been writing for twenty years! And there are women who were writing twenty years before that. So we must recognize that and search through the fragments to find the whole.4

The crux of Sulter’s work has its roots in trauma-informed recovery, as she advocates for a collective sense of healing from the atrocities committed during the slavery trade, and the constant abuse that marginalised communities are subjected to. The aftermath of the Atlantic slave trade haunts everyone regardless of their skin colour, thus it is crucial to question the images and intentions of colonialism and empire when dealing the writings of the diaspora (p. 115). Sulter’s creative work encourages us to think of the Scottish African field as offering a fresh perspective on writing, identity and community. On the question of history in Sulter’s work, Jim Mabon comments:

Mining the historical record in this way is a political act since Britain’s African heritage, its ‘Black’ history, is not normally treated in school or university history courses, nor is it widely regarded as integral to national identity. The 1950s immigrations of Caribbean and Asian peoples are typically but erroneously viewed as that point in history when dark-skinned people first arrived in Britain. Other writers in Britain, the Caribbean, and North America have recently turned to the historical record, often to the Transatlantic Slave trade and the slave narrative tradition, but Sulter’s interest in a specifically Scottish, preslavery experience sets her apart from almost all of her creative contemporaries.5

There is an ethical duty to broaden such conversations on race in Scotland and the UK and to shed a light on creativity of the BAME community. Sulter herself argued that further research needed to be conducted on the creativity of Black women and their ‘enormous web of activity’, and in her work she promotes and encourages activities that aim to ‘research, reclaim and make public our herstory for ourselves’.6 Crucial to this process is the actions and politics institutions. The University of Glasgow has recently established as ArtsLab initiative entitled ‘Decolonise Glasgow’ that delivers constructive talks and workshops on issues related to empire, diversity, and institutional representation. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, many BAME individuals are targeted because of their anticolonial views, and amongst them is Professor Priyamvada Gopal. However, The University of Cambridge showed public solidarity to Prof Gopal which helped eliminate some of the cyber abuse she was facing on social media. More libraries, schools and universities need to take a step further in decolonisation and add more resources and books on Black literature and history, and make them accessible to the public. Celebrating BAME artists and writers will evidently delve the way in which institutions and governments can work on reparations and decolonisation. Books such as Maud Sulter: Passion would be an excellent addition to local libraries in Scotland, affording readers an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the legacy of Scottish Black women writers. These authors, including and not limited to, Zoë Wicomb, Aminatta Forna, Leila Aboulela and Kokumo Rocks, have much to teach us and can inspire us to more openness, understanding and engagement with our shared culture and history. Inquiring and supporting works undertaken by marginalised identities establishes a much-needed sense of visibility, and reminds us of the diversity that underpins creativity.

Maud Sulter: Passion is published by Altitude Editions Press, 2015.


End Notes

  1. Deborah Cherry, ‘Image-making with Jeanne Duval in Mind: Photoworks by Maud Sulter, 1989–2002’, in Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, ed. Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy C. Rowe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 145–68 (p. 146).
  2. Maud Sulter, ‘Notes of a Native Daughter’, in Let It Be Told, ed. Lauretta Ngcobo (London: Virago Press, 1987), pp. 53–70 (p. 53).
  3. Maud Sulter, ‘Embrace: As a Blackwoman’, in As a Black Woman (London: Akira Press, 1985), pp. 9–10 (p.10).
  4. Rebecca E. Wilson, ‘Maud Sulter’, in Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish Women Poets, ed. Gillean Somerville-Arjat and Rebecca E. Wilson (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990), pp. 26–36 (pp. 31–32).
  5. Jim Mabon, ‘Europe’s African Heritage in the Creative Work of Maud Sulter’, in Research in African Literatures 29, 4 (1998), pp. 148–55 (150).
  6. Maud Sulter, ‘Introduction’, in Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity, ed. Maud Sulter (West Yorkshire: Urban Fox Press, 1990), pp. 13–14 (p. 14).
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Esraa Husain

Esraa Husain is a Doctoral researcher in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow.

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