The Ben Uri gallery is presenting the exhibition, Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae. This is the first in a series of exhibitions at Ben Uri to explore themes of identity and migration within contemporary art. The exhibition pair’s photographic work by two artists whose interests are very different but who both choose costume and staged photography to re-present the sitter and to challenge the viewer’s perceptions and prejudices about race, gender and history.
The parallels between Sulter’s portraits of black women, which seek to reposition them within British society and Western art history, and Chan-Hyo Bae’s self-portraits in costume in which he also attempts to become a part of our national history are both visually and socially challenging.
Maud Sulter (1960-2008) was born in Glasgow of Scots and Ghanaian parentage. She was a poet, historian, teacher and artist – working with installation, photography and video. She participated in the notable exhibition The Thin Black Line at the ICA in 1985. Sulter produced Zabat in 1989 as a response to the celebration of the 150th anniversary of photography which she saw as an overwhelmingly white male occasion. She was the artist-in-residence at Rochdale Art Gallery, where Zabat was first shown. Zabat is a remarkable cycle of studio portraits of creative black women, each representing one of the nine muses of classical antiquity. The word Zabat describes an ancient ritual dance performed by women on occasions of power. The exhibition will include leaves from Sulter’s book of the same title which expands on the iconography of the series. A portrait of the novelist Alice Walker represents Thalia, muse of comedy. A remark by Walker, quoted as an epigraph to the text on Clio, muse of history, illuminates the whole series with sharp humour: ‘As a black person and a woman I don’t read history for facts, I read it for clues.’
The images in Zabat work on many complex levels: as representations of the Muses, as allegorical portraits of black women, as a celebration of black women’s creativity and as a remaking of photographic traditions. The presence of black women contradicts the traditional Western depiction of the Muses, that of passive white women, their artistic and scientific skills, inspirational abilities and spiritual powers removed, while they become objects of sensual enjoyment. These Muses are ‘characters’, active women, creators of culture: writers, artists, photographers, singers.
Sulter’s work shares some concerns with that of the feminist artist Judy Chicago, who was subject of a major exhibition at Ben Uri in 2012, particularly her installation The Dinner Party. Permanently on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the piece consists of a huge table with 39 place settings for famous mythical and historic women.
In contrast Chan-Hyo Bae (b.1975-) is a young Korean photographer whose series Existing in Costume
questions his place within British society. Each of his self-portraits depicts Bae in a different historic British costume and the resulting images challenge the viewer’s notions of masculinity and British identity. Bae writes that as an Asian man he is invisible to British women and that he has no means of understanding the history and culture in which he finds himself living. He is shown holding traditional Korean objects, which exaggerate the differences between the sitter and his costume even further.
The exhibition also includes two photographic works from Bae’s Fairy Tales in which he presents himself costumed as the main protagonist within traditional Western Fairy tales – he is Cinderella and The Beast (of Beauty and The Beast). These large staged photographs, made in British stately homes, challenge our assumptions about the classic tales and question the racial and sexual stereotypes that the stories present.
Looking In is a natural and strategic extension of the museum’s on-going narrative on identity and migration. It addresses the issues faced by contemporary artists in Britain looking beyond those of Jewish émigré’s from the first half of the 20th Century.