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Photograph - Polyhymnia (Portrait of Dr Ysaye Barnwell)
  • Polyhymnia (Portrait of Dr Ysaye Barnwell)
    Sulter, Maud, born 1960 - died 2008
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Polyhymnia (Portrait of Dr Ysaye Barnwell)

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (probably, photographed)

  • Date:

    1989 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Sulter, Maud, born 1960 - died 2008 (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Dye destruction print

  • Credit Line:

    Copyright Maud Sulter

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This photograph is from a series of portraits of creative black women by Maud Sulter, who is of Ghanaian and Scottish parentage. The series is called Zabat and shows each woman as one of the nine Greek muses. The word Zabat describes an ancient ritual dance performed by women on occasions of power, and her use of it signifies Maud Sulter's call for a repositioning of black women in the history of photography.

The model here is the singer and composer Dr Ysaye Maria Barnwell, member of the cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and founder of the Jubilee Singers, a choir at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington DC. Here she is represented as Polyhmnia, the muse of songs to the gods.

Maud Sulter produced the Zabat series for Rochdale Art Gallery in 1989, the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography. It was a direct response to the lack of a black presence at other celebratory events and exhibitions. Here we see the conventions of Victorian portrait photography under the command of a black woman photographer. The backdrop, props and pose are all retained but the image is transformed with African clothes, non-European objects and, most importantly, by the resolute black woman at its centre.

Physical description

Photograph of Dr Ysaye Barnwell, represented as Polyhmnia, the muse of songs to the gods.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (probably, photographed)


1989 (photographed)


Sulter, Maud, born 1960 - died 2008 (photographer)

Materials and Techniques

Dye destruction print


Height: 122 cm, Width: 153 cm

Historical context note

Maud Sulter works with photography as well as video and installation. Amongst her recent projects has been a series of allegorical portraits of contemporary black women which used conventional studio techniques along with the trappings of historical displays. Sulter also uses a variety of conventions from portraiture - from 18th century costume to heavy Victorian frames. The contrast between these anachronistic and aristocratic styles and the actual histories of her sitters is used to poetic effect and also raises questions about the nature of 'national' heritage.

Descriptive line

'Polyhmnia' (Dr Ysaye Barnwell), dye destruction print, Zabat series, Maud Sulter, 1989

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Katy Barron, Looking In. Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae. London: Ben Uri Gallery, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-900157-42-4.

Subjects depicted

Egg; Woman


Photographs; Black History; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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