Photographer Sunil Gupta on documenting LGBTQ+ culture across the globe and his ongoing retrospective in London

How is the feedback for From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective (till 21 February at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, It features 16 series over 45 years.

I worked closely with curator Mark Sealy to present a variety — four videos, all photographs from Christopher Street (1976), works from Trespass (1990s), Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-), Homeland (2001-03), among others. We’ll have a bigger show in Toronto next year, but the retrospective is rather well-received in London. Many people are moved by it, even seem to relate to it. A lot has changed since the mid ’80s. People are more connected, doesn’t matter where you are. With the internet, nothing seems too distant. When Exiles was shown in the ’80s, London was one of the centres of Western cultural power and it didn’t consider material from outside Europe as art; it was looked on more like ethnography or anthropology, but now the expectation that art should come from all over the globe is more.

Could you talk about discovering your sexuality during childhood in Delhi and the move to Canada at the age of 15?

I had a charming, open and free childhood. In Nizamuddin, in my boy gang, all kinds of experimentation took place, a lot of it was sexual, but no one spoke about it. The sudden move to Canada came as a shock, all the ways I’d learnt to find sex were not viable in that country. Coming from India was useless baggage because most students in my class hadn’t heard of India. Everything I knew seemed irrelevant. When 17, I discovered a new identity of being gay. At McGill University, I joined a gay-student society which was involved in activism and became the photographer for their newsletter. I was happy shooting gay things. Not until I came to London in 1977 did I become more aware racially. In the late ’70s-80s, being South Asian in the UK was a racism problem. I didn’t find any reference to gay Indian art history and felt motivated to make work about being gay and Indian — it needed to be placed in the art historical context.

What makes you keep diving into your family archives?

I’ve been a migrant, staying at different places, people often ask me where is home, where would I rather be. My father comes from a typical Uttar Pradesh zamindar family. My Tibetan mother was adopted by Christian missionaries and grew up in a boarding school in Amritsar. Every year, my father would take me for Holi to his village Mundia Pamar. Much later, when I came across Paul Strand’s Portrait of An Italian Village, I decided to go back to Mundia Pamar for Portrait of an Indian Village (2006). I realised I had great access there and that people were connected to the land in a way not many are. For Social Security (1988), I drew from our family album to tell the story of my family’s migration to Montreal.

From Exiles in the ’80s to numerous series you made during your Delhi stay (2005-12), how has it been to shoot in India?

In Royal College of Art (London), I wanted to be a documentary photographer who takes up issues of social justice. So, in the ’80s, I travelled to Tilonia to document systemic rural poverty in Rajasthan. On my way in and out of India, I would photograph gay men. My friends in the country at the time looked at being gay as a ‘bourgeois urban problem’ and not worth doing. When I returned to live in Delhi, things had also changed. People were meeting less in parks and more on the Net and at private parties. It’s how I conceived Mr Malhotra’s Party with portraits of ‘real’ people, who were willing to identify their sexuality as queer.

What prompted From Here to Eternity (1999), made in response to the illness brought on by HIV?

I really didn’t want to deal with HIV/AIDS. When I was diagnosed in ’95, I was already overloaded, being gay and Indian. Then in 1999, I wasn’t feeling too well. It was a really low period. Having become ill, I couldn’t carry on doing my freelance work and decided to do something about the illness as ‘photo therapy’. Going back to the dark room was magical. It was me playing dead. The first picture was of me naked, to see how the illness was affecting my body. Different aspects of it, such as me taking medicines, were juxtaposed with photographs of my local London gay clubs, which had turned into sex clubs. After that, I felt a lot freer talking about HIV in my work.

Your 2012 Delhi show was shut down after a complaint of obscenity. How do you see the evolution of LGBTQ+ rights here?

After the ruling, I don’t think there should be a legal problem in showing my work in India. There was a plan to show Christopher Street at Vadehra (Delhi) in October, but we could not owing to COVID-19. Next year, we plan to show an earlier body of black-and-white images at Jhaveri Contemporary (Mumbai). It’s not so much about the gay content as much as nudity, with moral judgement hanging over it. Unlike a nude sculpture, in photography, it’s perceived as too close to pornography, the issue there hasn’t been resolved. The striking down of Section 377 (of Indian Penal Code) is a huge relief but there’s more work to be done with regard to rights, marriage…it’s important to remain vigilant.

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