Hannah Abel-Hirsch

From Here to Eternity

The first UK-based retrospective of Sunil Gupta looks back on 45 years of both personal experience and the tribulations of the gay community

Feature, British Journal of Photography — Issue 7899, October 2020

Photo: Sunil Gupta

Sunil Gupta’s photographs are as much a reflection on his life as they are documentation of a significant period in the history of gay rights. His intimate images take us to the electric streets of New York’s Greenwich
Village in the 1970s through to the darkness of Aids and the struggles and victories of gay communities worldwide, from London to his birthplace, India. Now, 16 series from Gupta’s past 45 years of work go on show at The Photographers’ Gallery until 24 January in what is the artist’s first major UK-based retrospective, From Here to Eternity. A new publication, charting the encounters and events that have shaped his political and personal journey, accompanies the show.

Gupta was born in 1953 and grew up in New Delhi in a time and place where sexual experimentation existed, but the conversation did not. “As a teenager, people did stuff and messed around – you would wait until your parents were out, but no one called it anything, there was no language to describe what was going on,” he says. In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots in New York City, he migrated to Montreal, Canada, with his family, discovering a sexually liberated country, where he could express himself fully. The 1960s were the years of free love, and the fight for civil rights. Studying a BA in communications at Concordia University, Gupta immersed himself in the activities of the gay liberation movement within his school. It was here that he began to engage with photography, buying a camera and making prints for the various newsletters and newspapers created by the same liberation group.

However, it was upon moving to New York City that Gupta experienced gay liberation properly amid the streets of Greenwich Village, and particularly Christopher Street, hom of the Stonewall Inn, where the movement gained momentum following the Stonewall riots of 1969. Aids was not yet a threat and homosexuality had moved into the open with gay men occupying the street to meet, flirt and hang out; a radical act, which Gupta documented in Christopher Street (1976). It was the first series he made as a practising artist while studying photography at the New School (having dropped out of an MBA), and captures the men surrounding him through intimate black-and-white images.

Following his then-partner, Gupta left for the UK in 1977, where he received a diploma in photography at West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham before going on to study an MA at the Royal College of
Art. London was light years behind New York. Despite the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalising homosexuality, this was contingent upon relations between two men happening in private. In response to
the legislation, police ramped up arrest and entrapments of members of the gay community throughout London. There was no Christopher Street equivalent: “There was a cafe inside Habitat on the King’s Road, which became a big gay hangout, but the management got very anti and made it known that they didn’t want you there,” remembers Gupta. Homophobia even pervaded the Royal College of Art. “I would come into crits sometimes and my work would be facing the wall, but it didn’t make me stop, it made me want to do it more,” he says.

Gupta’s experiences in London politicised him further. On graduating, he moved south of the river to join the “loony left” – Ken Livingstone, and the Greater London Council (GLC), which Livingstone was elected to run
in 1981. “Gay was something that became very politicised in a way that it wasn’t in New York; being gay in London was much more of a struggle,” he says. Gupta threw himself into both the capital’s politics and its photography scene. It was through the GLC that he became involved in a show of Black photographer at the Brixton Art Gallery, exhibiting work from his commissioned series Reflections of the Black Experience (1986), which depicted elements of Black people’s experience across the capital. The show led to the conception of Autograph ABP, now directed by Mark Sealy, who is also the curator of Gupta’s current Photographers’ Gallery exhibition.

Increasingly, Gupta’s work became a vessel for activism. In 1987, he received a commission from The Photographers’ Gallery to explore the realities of gay men in New Delhi, his hometown, where homosexuality was still a crime and punishable by up to 10 years in prison (it was only legalised in 2018). In Exiles [5], candid colour images, accompanied by comments from their subjects, reveal the lives and voices of gay Indian men, which were otherwise hidden. Lines of text, drawn from excerpts of a poem by Gupta’s then-partner, Stephen Dodd, also feature in ‘Pretended’ Family Relationships (1988), composed of colour images of unnamed couples at home and outside. The series takes its name fro a phrase in the infamous Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, passed in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which restricted any material promoting same- sex relationships.

Other series on show include Memorials (1995), a poignant project that commemorates the victims of homophobic hate crimes, and From Here to Eternity (1999), from which the exhibition takes its name and which Gupta created in response to being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1995. The series comprises six diptychs made during a period of illness brought on by the virus, and which reflect Gupta’s emotions at this time. And the more recent The New Pre-Raphaelites (2008) [1 & 4], commissioned to support the legal battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law that criminalised homosexuality. The project encompasses sumptuous staged portraits of South Asian gay, lesbian and transgender individuals, reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

“I used to call myself a cultural activist rather than an artist,” says Gupta. “There has always been this tension.” This tension rips through the entirety of Gupta’s oeuvre: every series masterfully blending art with activism; a distinct aesthetic with a socially engaged message. “Photography shifted from bein a job or profession to being life in itself,” he says, a remark which seems to encapsulate his practice. His photographs reflect his personal history and also speak for the injustices endured by individuals and communities worldwide, historically and today.