Putting Ourselves in the Picture with Maud Sulter

Artist Sam Rutherford led a workshop for an invited group of women living in North Edinburgh responding to the work of Scottish-Ghanian artist Maud Sulter. In this blog she discusses the workshop and shares some of the artworks that they produced.

Maud Sulter La Chevelure 2002 © Estate of Maud Sulter. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2023

I was invited by National Galleries of Scotland to deliver a photography workshop for women living in North Edinburgh inspired by the work of Scottish-Ghanaian artist Maud Sulter. I previously worked with the women on the Putting Ourselves in the Picture series of photography workshops between September–December 2021 initiated by Fast Forward to increase ‘awareness of women’s unheard life stories using photography as a tool of empowerment and as a story-telling practice’. 

Maud Sulter is best known as an artist and poet, the National Galleries of Scotland collection includes two major works by her: Urania from the series Zabat (1989) and La Chevelure (2002) which is currently on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in The Modern Portrait display. Through her multi-disciplinary practice, Sulter questions the representation of Black women in art and literature. 

Polaroids produced in the workshop, 2022

Sulter said in her self-published Zabat portfolio that she wanted to 'put Black women back in the centre of the frame’ something she did literally and figuratively throughout her career. After looking at Sulter’s La Chevelure in the gallery and discussing the story behind it, the workshop group set about thinking of the women that we would like to see in the ‘centre of the frame’. We discussed how we could represent these women in a simple and effective way, through poses, dressing up, and choosing gold frames to hold the final image (much like Sulter did in 2002 for her incredible series of self-portraits as Jeanne Duval).  

The atmosphere was fun and relaxed, we listened to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s (1938–1997) music while the women helped each other with headwear and making paper jewellery to accessorise accurately. One of the women chose to represent Fela’s mother. 

Lovelin as Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, 2022
Hannah as Esther Afua Ocloo, 2022

We used polaroid cameras and gold paper frames. Hannah chose to represent her grandmother - Dr Mrs Esther Ocloo (Nee Nkulenu) (1941–2002) the first woman to establish food processing in Ghana.

Maureen selected Mary Mitchell Slessor (1848–1915), a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to Nigeria. Slessor was a teacher, learning Efik and other local languages. She saved the lives of hundreds of twin babies working through education to combat superstitious beliefs held against them.

Maureen as Mary Slessor, 2022

Throughout the session we had some great conversations about the impact of these women.

The purpose of the session was to explore what Sulter’s work meant with the women as well as to continue working on the photographic skills acquired during their Putting Ourselves in the Picture group project.  

Sam Rutherford is an artist and freelance creative working at National Galleries of Scotland and other organisations in Scotland. 

By Sam Rutherford, 28 February 2023