Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Photos from a lifetime of change

Sunil Gupta's work examines race, sexuality, culture and family

WHEN FAMILY DOESN'T UNDERSTAND. The text with Social Security-20 says, "Then you brought Steve to Montreal, against our will. When will you settle down?"

When Sunil Guptacame to Canada from India as a teenager, his parents had high hopes of a future of opportunity for him and his sister. Little did they suspect that opportunity meant dropping out of an MBA program, running off to England with a man he loved and enrolling in art school.

As it turns out, art school was the right place to be. Gupta’s now well into the third decade of a successful career as a photographer, writer, curator, cultural animator and artist. The Canadian Museum Of Contemporary Photography is showing Social Security and Homelands, two fascinating series of photos by Gupta. Both have a strong autobiographical flavour and they challenge preconceptions about family, culture, race and sexuality.

Social Security focusses squarely on Gupta’s parents and the immigrant experience. It features family album-style photos captioned with quotes from his mother. The sense of dislocation is palpable. For his parents, the move to Canada led to the break-up of the family.

“I came out as gay, something [my parents] didn’t understand, and they wanted me not to talk about it,” explains Gupta. “My sister and I were harsh on them. They got very isolated in the process.”

Beneath the dislocation, Social Security is quite moving. It’s clear Gupta’s parents care deeply for their children. And the details around the death of his father are particularly poignant.

If immigrating to Canada was a failure from his parents’ viewpoint, it allowed Gupta to blossom. He came out at 17, on the first day of school at Dawson College in downtown Montreal.

“The gay thing was a blessing in disguise,” says Gupta. “It wasn’t very cool to be of Indian origin then, so I had to scrap my Indian past. It was much cooler to be gay.”

Gupta and his classmates jumped headfirst into the social activism of the early 1970s. “We got very politicized. We would leaflet Montreal gay bars about how selfishly right-wing it was to go cruising by yourself,” he laughs. “We were going to change everything.”

Change is perhaps the thread that binds Gupta’s CMCP exhibitions. The two were created almost 15 years apart. Social Security presents actual darkroom prints, many from before Gupta attended formal art school. Homelands came after the digital photography revolution and is the work of a seasoned artist. Each series also reflects a journey of change in and of itself, first his parents’ move to Canada and then his own shuttling between India, Canada, the United States and England.

“I thought it would be useful for the Canadian public to see both his early and more recent work,” says Martha Hanna, director of the CMCP. “It allows some of the approaches Sunil takes in his work to be more apparent. The idea of narrative has run through his work, and also autobiography.”

Homelands, completed in 2003, features large-scale colour diptychs — pairs of photos side by side. They bring together the landscapes that have shaped Gupta’s identity, forcing the eye to integrate disparate images of East and West. A keen queer eye will catch finer details like the HIV/AIDS billboard in South Delhi and the obscured ACT-UP sit-in in Washington, DC. In fact, HIV was a key to Gupta’s initial conception of the work.

“Homelands was made in the spirit of a virus crossing borders,” says Gupta, who has been HIV-positive since 1995. “Usually the subject of HIV photos is the person carrying the virus — victim-like pictures. I wanted to turn it around and have the virus looking out at the world.”

The world Gupta represents is a complex one. In life and art, he’s struggled to integrate the various facets of his identity. He’s been frustrated at times by an art world that usually sees him either through a racial or a sexual lens, but rarely through both. Politics has long been a driving force for his work, particularly for series like Exiles and Trespass, which can be seen on his website or in his book Pictures From Here.

“I’ve been motivated to make pictures of Indian gay men, who are invisible in the world,” says Gupta. “I have yet to see any popular gay newspaper in England or America that has images of Indians. They don’t form an object of desire — there are blacks and East Asians but no South Asians.”

After many years in England, Gupta moved back to India last year to be with the man he loves. His HIV status and foreign citizenship — he’s officially a Canadian — mean that he lives under threat of deportation. So far, the authorities have ignored his “open secret.” Gupta describes India’s gay scene as “non-existent” but he sees signs of change, which has renewed his fire for political and social action.

“Now that I’ve arrived at 50, with the remaining years I should really do something coming back to India,” says Gupta. “I’m very active trying to work on photography and art. And there’s gay activism here like I haven’t seen since the 1970s. This place needs work and there need to be people to do it. I feel more socially useful here.”