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Sunil Gupta on his life, his work, and gay-rights since the sixties

Sixteen series from Gupta’s oeuvre go on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, in what is the artist’s first, major UK-based retrospective. Ahead of the opening, Gupta reflects on almost half a decade spent making work responding to the injustices suffered by gay men across the globe, himself included

Sunil Gupta’s photographs are as much a reflection on his life, as they are documentation of a significant period in the history of gay rights. His intimate images take us to the electric streets of New York’s Greenwich Village in the seventies, through to the darkness of AIDs and the struggles and victories of gay communities worldwide, from London to his birthplace, India. Now 16 series from Gupta’s past 45 years of work go on show at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, until 24 January 2021, in what is the artist’s first, major UK-based retrospective, From Here to Eternity. A new publication, charting the encounters and events that have shaped his political and personal journey, accompanies the show.

Gupta (b. 1953) grew up in Delhi, India, in a time and place where sexual experimentation existed, but the conversation didn’t: “As a teenager, people did stuff and messed around – you would wait until your parents were out, but no one called it anything, there was no language to describe what was going on.” In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots in New York City, he migrated to Montreal, Canada, with his family, discovering a sexually-liberated country, where he could express himself fully. The sixties were the years of free love and the fight for civil rights. Studying a BA in communications at Concordia University, Gupta immersed himself in the activities of the Gay Liberation Movement within his school. It was here that he began to engage with photography, buying a camera and making prints for the various newsletters and newspapers created by the same Liberation group. 

However, it was upon moving to New York City that Gupta experienced Gay Liberation properly amid the streets of Greenwich Village, and particularly Christopher Street, home of the Stonewall Inn, where the movement gained momentum following the Stonewall Riots of 1969. AIDs was not yet a threat and homosexuality had moved into the open with gay men occupying the street to meet, flirt, and hang-out. A radical act, which Gupta documented in Christopher Street (1976): the first series he made as a practising artist while studying photography at the New School (having dropped out of an MBA), which captures the men surrounding him through intimate black-and-white images. 

Untitled #22. 1976. From the series Christopher Street, courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery © Sunil Gupta
All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.

Following his then-partner, Gupta left for the UK in 1977, where he received a diploma in photography at West Surrey College of Art and Design, in Farnham, before going on to study an MA at the Royal College of Art. London was light-years behind New York. Despite the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalising homosexuality, this was contingent upon relations between two men happening in private. In response to the legislation, police ramped up arrests and entrapments of members of the gay community throughout London. There was no Christopher Street equivalent; “there was a cafe inside Habitat on the King’s Road, which became a big gay hangout, but the management got very anti- and made it known that they didn’t want you there,” remembers Gupta. And homophobia even pervaded the Royal College of Art. “I would come into crits sometimes and my work would be facing the wall, but it didn’t make me stop, it made me want to do it more” he continues.

Gupta’s experiences in London politicised him further. On graduating, he moved south of the river to join the “loony left” – Ken Livingston, and the Greater London Council (GLC), which Livingston was elected to run in 1981. “Gay was something that became very politicised here in a way that it wasn’t in New York; being gay in London was much more of a struggle,” he says. Gupta threw himself into both the capital’s politics and its photography scene. It was through the GLC that he became involved in a show of Black photographers at the Brixton Art Gallery, exhibiting work from his commissioned series Reflections of the Black Experience (1986), which depicted elements of Black people’s experience across the capital. The show led to the conception of Autograph ABP, now directed by Dr Mark Sealy MBE, who is also the curator of Gupta’s current Photographer’s Gallery exhibition. 

Increasingly, Gupta’s work became a vessel for activism. In 1986, he received a commission from The Photographers’ Gallery to explore the realities of gay men in Delhi, his hometown, where homosexuality was still a crime and punishable by up to 10 years in prison (it was only legalised in 1981). Candid colour images, accompanied by comments from their subjects, reveal the lives and voices of gay Indian men, which were otherwise hidden. Lines of text, drawn from excerpts of a poem by Gupta’s then-partner, Stephen Dodd, also feature in Pretended Family Relationships (1988), composed of colour images of unnamed couples at home and outside. The series takes its name from a phrase in the infamous “Clause 28” law passed in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which restricted any material promoting same-sex relationships.

Jama Masjid. 1987. From the series Exiles, courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery © Sunil Gupta,
all rights reserved, DACS 2020.

Other series on show include Memorials (1995), a poignant project that commemorates the victims of homophobic hate crimes; From Here to Eternity (1999), from which the exhibition takes its name and which Gupta made in response to being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1995. The series comprises six diptychs made during a period of illness brought on by the virus, and which reflect Gupta’s emotions at this time. And, the more recent The New Pre-Raphaelites 2008, commissioned to support the legal battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law that criminalised homosexuality. The project encompasses sumptuous staged portraits of South Asian gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. 

“I used to call myself a cultural activist rather than an artist,” says Gupta. “There has always been this tension.” This tension rips through the entirety of Gupta’s oeuvre: every series masterfully blending art with activism; a distinct aesthetic with a socially-engaged message. “Photography shifted from being a job or profession to being life in itself,” he continues, in a remark, which seems to encapsulate his practice. His photographs reflect his personal history, and also speak for the injustices endured by individuals and communities worldwide, historically and today. 

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From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective opens at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, and runs from 09 October 2020 to 24 January 2021.

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