Anonymity and self-fashioning: Sunil Gupta’s photography

On 17 May, galleries reopened in the UK. I took the opportunity to visit From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery for the exhibition’s limited reopening from 17 May – 31 May. A retrospective illumination of UK-based photographer Sunil Gupta’s (b. 1953, New Delhi, India) body of work so far, from 1976 to the present day, the showcase focusses on themes of race, identity, transition and family. Telling the story of what it is to be a gay Indian man, Gupta’s work is both personal and political, ordinary and melodramatic, and, crucially, challenges Eurocentric visualisations of bodies and desire.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Exiles’, 1986-1987, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/exiles.html

I was particularly struck by the way that pose and self-styling affect the atmosphere of the photographs. In an interview in 2019, Gupta said, ‘[in] India … one of the major stumbling blocks to stepping into [a gay] identity was not having a place. Every time I met somebody the primary question was “Do you have place?”’. This notion was especially prevalent in three of Gupta’s photographic series on display at the Photographer’s Gallery: Towards an Indian Gay Image (1983), Exiles (1986-1987) and Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-ongoing). The lack of place emphasises the importance of self-fashioning and the subjects’ poses and styling highlight senses of both displacement and belonging.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Towards an Indian Gay Image’, 1982, accessed via https://www.halesgallery.com/artists/91-sunil-gupta/works/

In 1983, Gupta created a black and white series, Towards an Indian Gay Image, that photographed Indian men who identified as gay. They agreed to be photographed but wanted to remain anonymous, which resulted in subjects posing with their back to the camera without their heads in the shot. Gupta explains:

It was the first time I had returned to India as an adult and I found gay men living in plain sight but completely hidden from mainstream society. The last thing they wanted me to do was to make photographs of them and publish them somewhere. It created a big dilemma for me as I was still in college and hoping to document social justice using photo-journalism and my subjects were invisible.

In these photographs, Gupta highlights the vulnerability of the gay community in India and the obstacles that arise from the desire to be recognised but the need to be hidden. He encourages us to consider how someone may dress and pose when they want to be both seen and unseen.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Exiles’, 1986-1987, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/exiles.html

This duality is continued in colour in the later series Exiles (1986-1987), where Gupta returned again to Delhi to illuminate the lives of gay men in India before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In 2020, Gupta told The Face, ‘I became aware through art school that this whole thing called art history is our context and my story is not in it.’ Exiles begins to tell this story, where clothing and pose are crucial in expressing Gupta’s subjects’ identity.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Mr Malhotra’s Party’, 2006-ongoing, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/mr-malhotras-party.html

For a much later series, Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-ongoing), Gupta photographs queer-identifying people in India, but this time they are keener to identify themselves. They pose confidently and look straight into the camera. The way they dress, too, is bold, cool, and assertive.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Mr Malhotra’s Party’, 2006-ongoing, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/mr-malhotras-party.html

Across these images, a transition is clear: from invisibility to visibility. By putting physical photographs next to each other in time, the exhibition emphasised the role of self-styling and posing in displaying identities, and in telling crucial stories that are at once personal and political. Through these photographs, Sunil Gupta created visibility for those who were hidden and began to answer the question: ‘what does it mean to be an Indian queer man?’ As the photographer himself has said, ‘It’s our everyday stories that are important.’

By Kathryn Reed

 

Sources used

Artist’s own website, <https://www.sunilgupta.net/> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

From Here to Eternity – an original film with photographer Sunil Gupta, dir. Louise Stevens, 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N2AtpQEtzs> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition press release, ‘From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta A Retrospective, 9 Oct 2020 – 24 January 2021’, (4 August, 2020) <https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/here-eternity-sunil-gupta-retrospective> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

Cochrane, Laura. ‘Sunil Gupta: photographing India’s queer scene over 50 years’, The Face (8 October 2020) <https://theface.com/culture/sunil-gupta-art-the-photographers-gallery-from-here-to-eternity-exhibition> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

Dunster, Flora. ‘Do You Have Place? A Conversation with Sunil Gupta’, Imagining Queer Europe Then and Now 35 No. 1 (20 January 2021)

DreckMag, ‘Interview with Sunil Gupta’, DreckMag (1 January 2017), <https://dreck-mag.com/2017/01/01/sunil-gupta/> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

 

 

 

 

The Fabric of India

Entrance to the exhibition

Entrance to the exhibition

I think the thing I loved most about the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition – and there is a lot to love – is the way that you learn so much through the objects themselves.  The show is subtly curated, there are distinct sections – dyestuffs, and types of embellishments and weaves, for example – which educate your eye in the early sections, but also a confident placement of fabrics across the displays, that slowly build deeper, longer histories. This means that by the later rooms, you are able to identify and understand the ways textiles fit into rituals, connect to life stage and to regional traditions, and the ways techniques somehow stay the same and yet can seem radically different in varied contexts.

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

Fabric as a global commodity is one of the threads (no pun intended) that runs throughout the exhibition, and which is then made explicit in a room that shows centuries of interconnections.  This shows how specific fibre, embellishment or print might be, and yet how it will also be adapted and translated across cultures. Thus, we see a beautiful Indian chintz ensemble of delicately coloured petticoat, jacket and fichu from mid-18th century England, next to an under-kimono that uses fabrics traded to the Japanese via the Dutch East India Company, and a banjan (similar to a dressing gown) from the Netherlands, made of fabric from the Coromandel Coast. The object labels state where each textile originated, and map the rich craft skills and resources of different areas, which then travel internationally setting fashions, sparking imitations, and at times triggering trade restrictions to protect home industries.

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

You get a strong sense of India’s centrality to the textiles trade, and just as important, as a source of innovation and creativity.  The sheer diversity of designs on show is dazzling, and benefits from low-key display techniques that allow the objects themselves to shine – in many instances, literally.  The room dedicated to the notion of splendour is remarkable, and includes the exhibition’s centrepiece – the printed chintz tent that belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in the second half of the 18th century.  Although it stands in a room filled with beautiful wall hangings and garments woven with gold and silver thread, it more than dominates the scene. And the fact you can walk inside gives you a sense of life in a moveable palace.

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Not all the exhibits are so dramatic, though they still have impact – I loved the late 19th century indigo-dyed dress on display in the first gallery, so severe and yet so rich with its full skirt. And the end section that shows contemporary Indian fashions, including a row of saris that glow in the gallery’s dim light is amazing.  What comes across is an almost overwhelming richness – of design and craft skills and creativity, of geographical scope and diversity, and of textiles’ impact on history and vice versa.  With this in mind, the role of Imperialism and colonialism, and its concomitant brutality haunts many gallery’s – brought to the fore in the discussion of Ghandi and the political significance of Khadi cotton. This controversial aspect of India’s history could perhaps have been explored further, but the exhibition as a whole is a breathtaking exploration of the Fabric of India.

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015