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]

 

 

 

 

5 Minutes with… Lucy Corkish

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Lucy, the co-editor of this blog, discusses Tamara de Lempicka, lidos and self-styling via eBay.

 

What is your dissertation about? 

I’m writing my dissertation on the artist Tamara de Lempicka, looking at her life as a process of self-fashioning. She’s most famous for the portraits (and self-portraits) she painted while living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, but lots of people were/are aware of her because of her persona and her distinctive look. The details of her life are sketchy in lots of places – some biographers believe that she lied about her age right up until her death in 1980 – and she seems to have actively cultivated this image of herself as a kind of glamourous, film star-esque aristocrat. She would commission photographers to capture her in designer clothes, always with painted red lips and nails. She wore a lot of accessories and had a particular penchant for hats, in her later years matching her hat to her outfit. For most of her life, she seemed to crave independence, marrying her second husband on the promise that she could enjoy his money and his title but continue her own, largely separate life. Once, when she failed to return home to spend Christmas with her young daughter, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, the two of them burned her collection of designer hats in retaliation.

Tamara de Lempicka photographed by Willy Maywald, 1948-1949 (via Stained Jabot)

One of her most famous paintings, a self-portrait commissioned as the cover of Die Dame, shows her in the driver’s seat of a green Bugatti – in reality, she drove a yellow Renault. The image has been hailed as a symbol of the modern woman, and for me, it says a lot about how she saw herself. It can be tricky to unpick all the anecdotes surrounding her, which she often reworked and retold to portray herself in a flattering light, but researching her life has taught me that her moulding of the truth was an extension of her self-styling. It’s been fascinating getting to know the many overlapping sides of her.

Tamara de Lempicka, Autoportrait, 1929, oil on panel, private collection

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year? 

I enjoyed writing my first essay on Margiela and memory, for which I watched the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. It was clear that his childhood memories played an essential role in his work and that his ideas around creating memories influenced his creativity. For example, at one show, the models – who walked among the audience – were perfumed with patchouli, playing on sensory memory. For my second essay, I looked at hundreds of images from ‘the golden age of the lido’ in 1930s Britain, which was, for me, great fun.

Bradford Lido, 1939 (via The Mirror)

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Early in the year, we read the first chapter from Daniel Miller’s Stuff, titled ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’. His discussion of Trinidadian ideas of the self as constantly evolving, existing on the surface (rather than somewhere buried within, built up incrementally over time) so that it must be sustained day by day in actions and choices – including in wardrobe choices – deepened my understanding of why clothes feel so important.

Where do you get your clothes from? 

I’m relatively serious about eBay. Closely monitoring saved search alerts and frantically trying to outbid any rivals in the final seconds of an auction has brought me lots of joy and frustration over the years, as well as a wardrobe full of things that I love to look at but that don’t necessarily fit me well. I keep a collection of screenshots of the wildest photos that people use to sell their clothes. Also, charity shops in fancy areas and anything that my friends are getting rid of.

Screenshot (eBay app), 2020

How would you describe your style? 

It was described to me today as ‘very last season Arket’, which I think is fairly accurate. I like to look at extravagant, sparkly clothes, but I want to feel as comfy as I can get away with, so cosy jumpers in the winter, cotton dresses in the summer and when in doubt, jeans. Anything that could be pyjamas but could also be worn out is the goal.

 

Bibliography

Claridge, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London, 2001)

De Lempicka-Foxhall, Kizette and Charles Phillips. Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka (New York, 1987)

Holzemer, Reiner. Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, cinematographer Toon Illegems (2020; London: Dogwoof)

Miller, Daniel. ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’ in Stuff (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 12-41

Spotlight On: ALOK

ALOK is a gender non-conforming performance artist of color based in New York. They use self-fashioning as a type of self-narration to break harmful racial and gender stereotypes that people impose on their body. For them, style is not only a form of self-expression, but also a form of political activity. Often spotted wearing brightly colored outfits, mixing different materials and prints together and always serving looks, Alok uses color as a way to make their body unapologetically visible within a white heteronormative cis-gender society.

 

Photo sby Elif Kulick

As a performance artist, Alok uses the body as both medium and object of activist work. The body, especially the stylized body, within their performance is a means of reifying the notion that social categories do not make individuals coherent or complete functioning beings in society, but rather one’s understanding of self does. It is through the acknowledgment that these social categories are harmful and imposed on marginalized bodies as a method of erasure where the individual can free themselves through the knowing of self.

 

Alok fights to make their body and their being artful in order to show not only their beauty and strength but also their status as a desiring subject. Alok takes on the challenge of using their style to tackle the question of, “what does it look like to live a visible and fulfilling life as a trans person-of-color?” Through dress and personal style Alok imagines this futurity.

Photo by Alex Hopkins

Dress and style then becomes a strategy of the visible process of and individual working to know themselves and understand themselves in a world that deems them as othered.

 

To embody creativity, which Alok does in their art, is to embody new hopes and visions of a future where people can color outside of the lines.