PHOTOGRAPHY / A cut above the rest: For all its colour, Maud Sulter's scrapbook-style 'Syrcas' recalls dark days of persecution. Jane Richards reports

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The Independent Culture
Maud Sulter is a delightfully complex photo-artist, her images compelling puzzles which cry out to be solved. Her most recent series, 'Syrcas', is now showing at the Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh. These large-scale, matt-laminated, cibachrome colour prints, mounted in raw oak frames, are immediately striking but there's much more to them than first meets the eye.

Sulter uses the medium as a starting point from which to build the layers of meaning and inventive image-construction which have characterised the black photographer's work over the past 10 years.

Until now, she has been best known for her series 'Zabat', which set the tone of her artistic output. Bold, solemn and exquisitely produced, her images delved deep into history, and in particular the presence of black people in art and literature. 'Zabat' comprised a series of bright colour portraits of black women artists, writers and musicians depicting the nine Muses.

Sulter's new exhibition is loosely based around the concept of a circus, but was called 'Syrcas' to fit in with the Welsh-speaking gallery for which it was commissioned. As Sulter explains: 'What is interesting is that the 'S' is so much closer to the letter 'Z' which starts the German word for circus - 'Zirkus.' This, as it turns out, is a clue: the German connection is crucial. Deep at the heart of this body of work is the largely unacknowledged persecution of black people in the Holocaust.

As Sulter explains, 'In the light of the current and increasing racial attacks and the horror of 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia and Rwanda, I felt compelled to look back to Germany's hidden history - the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Holocaust.'

Inspired by the German photographer August Sander's series 'Zircus', taken during the interwar years, one image in particular stuck in her mind. And she was sufficiently moved to write about the picture of a little black circus girl in an angry, poetic diatribe - Blood Money. The tale of a young black girl travelling with the circus, who finds herself caught up in war, is a vehicle to voice Sulter's deep-rooted preoccupation with persecution. And the 'circus' connection brings in allied fears of the problems of relocation and national borders.

The next stage was to translate the poem into a visual form, a process that took some time: 'I thought of setting up trapezes and other circus paraphernalia in a studio,' Sulter says, 'but then I felt that the piece should resemble something more like a diary. I'd been to see Anne Frank's house and liked the diary idea, but I wanted something more direct, more visual, and, ultimately, more personal. Then I remembered sticking pictures into a scrap-book as a child, and I saw that this was the perfect way of juxtaposing images to present the historical problems surrounding the presence of black people in Germany.'

Consequently 'Syrcas' is a fascinating series of large-scale constructed images which mix classical painting, technicolour post-card photography (of German landscapes), sculpture and black-and-white cut-outs of African masks and icons - to present Sulter's overall picture of the African presence in European history and culture.

And Sulter delights in the artistic process, finding new ways of layering clues to a hidden meaning. 'One idea leads to another,' she says, 'the difficult bit is knowing when to stop.'

To 17 Sept, Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh (031-220 1911)

(Photograph omitted)

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