Sunil Gupta: The New Pre-Raphaelites

12 - 30 January 2010

The New Pre-Raphaelites is an exhibition of works by photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta. On display are photographs from two recent series – Mr. Malhotra’s Party (2007) and the New Pre-Raphaelites (2008-09). The works explore issues of identity, gender and sexuality, subjects that have occupied Gupta over a large part of his career. Several works by the artist provide an autobiographical account of his experience with homosexuality and since his diagnosis in 1995, with HIV. This includes the series Exiles (1986) giving visibility to gay men in India, From Here to Eternity (1999) and Homelands (2001-03), in part a response to his own diagnosis with AIDS. Gupta has worked with his own body in some works and in others he photographs other homosexual men and women. Living between London and New Delhi, Gupta has been in the forefront of the gay rights movement in India.


In several of his earlier works, Gupta kept the identity of the gay men concealed.  In some images, the artist shows the backs of these men and in others their faces are chopped off from the photograph. This is because until July 2009, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an archaic law constituted by the British in 1860 criminalized same-sex relationships. This led to the development of a closeted culture making it difficult to treat life-threatening diseases like AIDS. Homosexuals were afraid to come out in the open even to have their diseases treated as this could have resulted in a 10 year imprisonment.


The series titled The New Pre-Raphaelites was originally commissioned by Autograph-ABP in London. Here Gupta uses portraiture to provide same-sex desire visibility. The Pre-Raphaelite group of painters in England formed a brotherhood to contest the stifling norms of the classical Victorian pose and advocated a return of focus to abundant detail, intense and luminous colours and complex compositions. Gupta adapts their focus on camp, sensuality and the arrangement of the body to visualize a modern Indian queer identity. While the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood believed that freedom and responsibility came together, they also believed in the spirituality and creativity of the medieval culture. Similarly, Gupta’s portraits bring together images of real people against mythic backgrounds. In fact each photograph refers specifically to an original painting by the Pre-Raphaelite masters. For instance John Everett Millais’s The Bridesmaid and Mariana are clearly visible in two of Gupta’s portraits. It is interesting to note that the original Pre-Raphaelites showed their work at the aptly titled Grosvenor galleries.


The exhibition also includes some works from the series Mr. Malhotra’s Party. In this series, Gupta photographs queer men and women in a more recent setting.  Unlike before, people met less in parks and more on the net and at ‘private parties.’ Their identities are not hidden any longer as their faces are clearly visible. Moreover, these people are willing to identify themselves as can be seen from the title of each photograph that reveals the name of the person concerned. The title of the series is Mr. Malhotra’s Party as gay nights at local clubs in Delhi were sign-posted under a fictitious person’s name in order to get around the law at the time. The people in the photographs are guests of this imaginary party. Two photographs from this series were part of the Street and Studio show at the Tate Modern in 2008.


Unlike Gupta’s previous work on homosexuality which deals specifically with gay men, the two series on display include photographs of homosexual women as well. These women live in the shadows of the gay movement in India. In a predominantly patriarchal country, only those women who can live independently of family networks and tradition can afford a lesbian identity.


About the artist: Born in 1953 in New Delhi, Sunil Gupta moved to Montreal with his family in the late 1960s, where his interest in photography began to develop.  From the mid-1970s he lived in New York, where he studied photography at the New School for Social Research under Lisette Model. At the end of the 1970s, he moved to London to continue his studies at the Royal College of Art.


He was involved in the founding of Autograph (Association of Black Photographers) in London, and he also set up the Organization for Visual Arts (OVA) to promote a greater understanding of questions regarding cultural differences and their incorporation into the sphere of fine art. His works have been exhibited at Tate Modern and Tate Britain. He is also curator at the Whitechapel Gallery. He has curated the show Where Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on show at the Whitechapel Gallery from the 21st of January 2010. He lives and works between London and New Delhi as a photographer, writer and curator.


Some of his publications include Wish You Were Here, New Delhi 2008; Pictures from Here, London 2003; David A. Bailey, Sunil Gupta: Monograph, London 1998; Sunil Gupta (ed.), An Economy of Signs. Contemporary Indian Photography,London 1990.