Sunil Gupta (b. 1953 New Delhi, India) moved to Canada as a teenager in the late 1960s, studying a Bachelor of Commerce at Concordia University, Montreal before moving to New York and enrolling in a photography course at the New School, NY, USA (1976). He went on to receive: a Diploma from West Surrey College of Art & Design, Farnham, Surrey, UK (1981); an MA from Royal College of Art, London, UK (1983); and a PhD from the University of Westminster, London, UK (2019) with a thesis titled “Queer Migrations.” Gupta lives and works in London.
Over a career spanning more than four decades, Gupta has maintained a visionary approach to photography, producing bodies of work that are pioneering in their social and political commentary. The artist’s diasporic experience of multiple cultures informs a practice dedicated to themes of race, migration and queer identity – his own lived experience a point of departure for photographic projects, born from a desire to see himself and others like him represented in art history.
In 1976, the first set of photographs Gupta made as a practicing artist were taken around Christopher Street in Manhattan, using the camera as a tool for open expression. The series reflects the openness of the gay liberation movement, as well as his own “coming out” as an artist. More than a nostalgic time capsule, the photographs reveal a community that shaped Gupta as a person and cemented his lifelong dedication to portraying people who have been denied a space to be themselves.
In the series Exiles (1986-1987), commissioned by the Photographers’ Gallery, Gupta returned to India and photographed gay men in front of a backdrop of famous tourist sites, the finished prints then presented alongside quotes from the subjects. Taken at a time when homosexuality was illegal in India, it was imperative for the artist to prove the existence of this community to himself and to the world. What is evident in this early project and has remained consistent in Gupta’s practice is the use of photography as a conduit to meeting people, as he builds up a rapport with his subjects and finds new stories. For example, in Lovers: Ten Years On (1984-86) he sought to meet and photograph queer people in long-term relationships, in order to try to understand the recent break up of his own. This series was overlooked at the time as there was ‘discomfort [in] acknowledging interracial male or homoerotic desire.’ Now, Lovers: Ten Years On has a different significance for its sociological resonance, pinpointing a specific moment in British consciousness.
In the mid-1990s, Gupta was diagnosed as HIV positive, which caused the artist’s focus to shift - although his practice had always had a level of introspection, this was brought to the fore in works using his body as subject matter. It was at this point he had a physiological discovery that digital photography - which Gupta had been working with for eight years - did not have the same transformative quality as film photography, stating that the ‘dark room is magic’ and ‘healing.’ This is exemplified through the series From Here to Eternity (1999), in which the artist documents his medical journey and maps his South London context, aiding the artist in coming to terms with his illness.
From 2004 to 2012, Gupta returned to living in India, during which time he photographed the queer community in a series entitled Mr Malhotra’s Party. An updated version of Exiles, the artist photographed the young people he had come to know. In comparison to the earlier series, his subjects are more upfront and confrontational in their poses. Although there was still a high degree of invisibility for this community, Gupta captures a sense of defiance in these images – homosexuality was still illegal in India at the time, and yet people were determined to get together, meeting online and at private parties under fake names to defy the law.
Most recently, Gupta has been developing a project centring around the topic of queer migration in Canada. The artist has come to realise that his identity was partly shaped by his own migration - describing his experience as not so much a ‘departure as an arrival.’ In Gupta’s critical practice, he continues to forge his own cultural history, fusing the public and the personal through photographs that highlight those marginalised in society.
Gupta’s work is in many public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, NY, USA; Tate Britain, UK; Museum of London, UK; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, USA; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Japan; the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada; George Eastman Museum, NY, USA; Arts Council, UK; and Harvard University, MA, USA. He has published and edited many books including: Christopher Street (2018); Delhi: Communities of Belonging (2016); Queer (2011); Wish You Were Here (2008); Pictures from Here (2003); Disrupted Borders (1993); Ecstatic Antibodies (1990); and an Economy of Signs (1990). In 1989, Gupta co-founded Autograph – the Association of Black Photographers, and in 1992 he was awarded an INIVA curatorial franchise, the Organisation for Visual Arts (OVA), aimed at promoting a better understanding of culturally diverse visual arts practices. In 2020, Gupta was included in Masculinities: Liberation through Photography - an expansive exhibition at the Barbican, London, UK (2020). Later this year Gupta will be the subject of a major touring retrospective, From Here to Eternity – a collaboration between The Photographers’ Gallery, London, UK; and the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada.