Subverting Expectations

Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) was born in New Delhi, before residing for several years in Montreal, and studying at the Royal College of Art, London. Throughout a renowned and varied artistic career, he has utilised photography as a critical practice – focusing on family, race, migration and the political realities concerning the fight for international gay rights. Gupta has been inspirational to generations of activists and campaigners, from participating in New York’s active Gay Liberation Movement in the 1970s to his more recent campaigning for gay liberation in India. These projects have been instrumental in raising awareness of taboo culture – offering a new understanding of the ways in which homosexual life is presented, seen, and perceived in the modern world.

This autumn, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, presented the artist’s first major retrospective (closing 5 November due to COVID restrictions.) This seminal exhibition tackled some of the important themes of our time, including racial equality, body politics and LGBTQ+ rights. “For Gupta, photography became a process of affirming his identity and a tool for political activism. It was in his native country that he learned to abandon the modes of conventional, representational photographic practice. From 1984 onward, Gupta actively pursued visual inquiries that engaged the intimacy, humanity, and everyday realities of gay life wherever his diasporic identity was located. He continually had to negotiate his position from the perspective of the outsider – whether he was living in India, North America or Europe – within varied social, political and cultural movements,” notes Anna Dannemann, Senior Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery.

The exhibition included a number of key series, ranging from experimentations in analogue street photography to early investigations into digital photographic formats. The most compelling works, perhaps, come from the exhibition’s title series. From Here to Eternity (1999) includes mural-sized portraits which were produced following Gupta’s diagnosis as HIV positive in 1995. Emotive and striking, these compositions highlight the artist’s experiences of living with the virus, coming to terms with his own mortality, and receiving mixed responses from individuals in his immediate community.

Meanwhile, Memorials (1995), a never-before-seen series, commemorates the victims of homophobic hate crimes, paying homage to their pain, whilst spreading the message of continued injustice and suffering. Similarly important is Reflections of the Black Experience (1986), which illustrates various facets of black people’s experiences living and working in London. Now 34 years old, the series is just as relevant today and demonstrates Gupta’s monumental contribution to the art world; this seminal series eventually led to the formation of Autograph – the Association of Black Photographers – an organisation devoted to contesting the discrimination of marginalised photographers across the UK.

From Here to Eternity at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, is currently closed. Find out more and watch an interview with the artist here.

Image: Sunil Gupta, Untitled #11, 2008. From the series The New Pre-Raphaelites. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020