Les Bijoux 2002 is a series of photographs that comprises nine large-scale Polaroids of equal size that present a sequence of performative self-portraits by the British artist Maud Sulter. Adopting a similar posture in each image, the artist appears dressed in various lavish gowns and jewellery set against a black studio background. The works are numbered sequentially with Roman numerals, although they can be displayed separately and in any order. In seven of the images, Sulter looks directly at the camera while in two (numbers II, Tate P82548, and VIII, Tate P82554) she appears in profile. Her face presents a subtle array of dignified emotions, from desire to grief, and in two of the images (numbers III, Tate P82549, and VII, Tate P82553) she tugs at her necklace as if to break it. Made using a large-format Polaroid camera, the raw edges of the prints are left visible and the photographs’ white margins are muddied with residue from the Polaroid instant printing process.
In Les Bijoux the artist re-imagined herself as Jeanne Duval (c.1820–c.1862), the little-known romantic companion and muse of nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). Born in Haiti, Duval was an actress and dancer of mixed French and African ancestry. She was reportedly the granddaughter of an enslaved woman from Guinea in West Africa, sent by her owners to Nantes in Western France to work in a brothel. Duval met the young Baudelaire in 1842 and their twenty-five-year long relationship was considered the most important in his life. In addition to Baudelaire, Duval was a muse to several artists, including Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) and Édouard Manet (1832–1883). Sulter produced a considerable amount of research on Duval, for which she travelled widely and read extensively. Les Bijoux is the culmination of this research although Sulter had planned to write a biography about her. She was particularly interested in the lack of knowledge surrounding Duval, as with so many Black women throughout history. She said:
My ongoing visual fascination with Jeanne Duval began in 1988 with a visceral response to a Nadar photograph captioned Unknown Woman. There she stared at me willing me to give her a name, an identity, a voice. So for over a decade I have been image-making with her in mind, from Calliope in Zabat, 1989 to Les Bijoux, 2002.
(Sulter, in National Galleries of Scotland 2003, p.11)
The art historian Deborah Cherry has noted that, by this point in Sulter’s practice, ‘the exhilaration and animation of [earlier works such as] Zabat have vanished … Duval is silent, unspeaking, mute.’ (Cherry 2015, p.18.) The work embodies several of Sulter’s ongoing key themes: exploration of the role of the female muse, the erasure of Black women’s stories and the longstanding cross-cultural connections between Africa and Europe.
The title of Les Bijoux is taken from a poem by Baudelaire, published in his collection Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), in which he imagines Duval, without clothes, wearing only her jewels. The poem begins: ‘My beloved was naked and, knowing my heart’s desire, had kept only her sonorous jewels on, whose rich splendour gave her the triumphant air that Moorish slave-women have on their happy days’ (quoted in National Galleries of Scotland 2003, p.11). In Sulter’s version, Duval is presented with her jewels but also fully dressed and gazing directly at the viewer. This presentation appears to challenge Baudelaire’s exoticised description of Duval, instead giving her sexual agency and control over her representation. Curator Mark Sealy has identified these works as ‘confrontational and sensuous self-portraits’ that have ‘a strong undercurrent of sexual power … intensified by the possibility of both violence and rejection’ (Sealy 2007, p.94). The title might also refer to reports that Duval sold her jewels (as well as her hair) to support herself and Baudelaire during difficult times.
The images in Les Bijoux were taken using a 20 x 24 Polaroid camera, the largest Polaroid camera in existence. This camera weighs over 100 kilograms and only seven of them were made (https://20x24studio.com/?page_id=1653, accessed 11 October 2019). The one used for Les Bijoux was owned by the Czech photographer Jan Hnizdo, formerly chief operator of Polaroid, who travelled with it to Sulter’s studio in Edinburgh. Sulter began experimenting with large-format Polaroids in the early 2000s, mostly for commissioned portraits of writers (see Scots Poets 2002, a series of ten portraits of Scottish poets commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library; and eight portraits of children’s writers commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery for their Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: Portraits of Children's Writers exhibition, 2001). At the sittings for the large-format Polaroids two, and occasionally three, prints were made of each pose, each print being a unique work. The artist’s estate has confirmed that there are two complete sets of prints of Les Bijoux and also two individual unique proofs that are of different images. Tate’s set of prints was considered the principal set by the artist: it was framed and exhibited in her last major exhibition Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama at the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh in 2003. The second set was exhibited in the group exhibition Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora that toured a number of venues in Canada in 2006.
Les Bijoux is considered the final major series of work created by the artist before her cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 2008. It was first exhibited in Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama, an exhibition curated by Sulter that presented her own work alongside possible appearances of Duval in nineteenth-century French art through loans of paintings by artists such as Manet and Courbet, as well as photographs by Félix Nadar (1820–1910).
Maud Sulter, Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama, exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2003, reproduced p.34–43.
Mark Sealy, ‘Les Bijoux’, Next Level, no.12, 2007.
Deborah Cherry, ‘Image-making with Jeanne Duval in Mind: Photoworks by Maud Sulter, 1989−2002’, in Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Price (eds.), Women, The Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, Manchester 2013, pp.145–68.
Deborah Cherry (ed.), Maud Sulter: Passion, London 2015, reproduced p.89–105.
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