Sunil Gupta’s Extended Queer South Asian Family

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

As a young photographer, Sunil Gupta set a specific goal for himself: writing South Asian queerness into the art history books. The luminary artist has done that and more, crafting indelible portraits of queer selfhood and intimacy whose impact continues to influence artists today.

Born in India in 1953, Gupta moved to Montreal with his family as a teenager and then to New York after college, where he abandoned business school — much to his parents’ chagrin — and pursued photography full-time. An itinerate life brought him to London, where he helped cultivate a queer South Asian community, and back to India several times.

It was there, in his hometown of Delhi, that he photographed gay Indian men posed in front of local monuments and sites, often with their backs to the camera for safety. These tender images formed the groundbreaking series Exiles (1987), bringing gay Indian couples to the fore in an environment still steeped with homophobia. His 2008 series The New Pre-Raphaelites refracted the titular painting movement and rejected India’s Section 377, a code leftover from the British colonial government criminalizing homosexuality that was only overturned in 2018.

Gupta’s constantly evolving artistic eye discerns and captures the personal and the political, and he’s far from done. He and his husband Charan Singh recently opened concurrent photography shows at the Art House in Yorkshire, intertwining nearly 40 years of his Lovers: Ten Years On series with new photos they took together and Singh’s own work.

I spoke with Gupta over Zoom about his path to photography, navigating White queer spaces as a South Asian artist, exhibiting art while living with HIV, and the next generation of queer artists. In an email after our chat, he observed, “Exiles is on show in the permanent collection gallery of photography at MoMA. So my job of placing them into art history is done.” Read an edited and condensed version of our conversation below.

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H: How did you first become interested in photography?

SG: I actually had multiple starts. My first public start was through a gay student union at McGill University in Montreal way back at the end of the ’60s. We did a publication, a kind of newsletter zine. I volunteered to take pictures, so I taught myself how to do it — shoot it, process it, and print it, because it was analog days. But it wasn’t what I was studying to be. My parents said, “It’s medicine, engineering, or business,” and business looked like the quickest way out. It was difficult to entertain the idea of doing photography professionally, so I started it again in New York in 1976. I enrolled in an MBA in finance, but it was there that I got sidetracked into photography.

By the end of the first semester, I’d met a lot of gay people and people in the photo world and dropped out of my classes. I enrolled at the New School to study photography, and a teacher there said I should take it on full-time.

H: Which teacher was that? 

SG: Lizette Model. I remember saying to her that I didn’t think photography was going to make me any money. And that was true, but she was quite keen. It took a while for it to work its way through my system. At the end of the year, my parents got a bill and a transcript saying I hadn’t gone to classes, but the business school still wanted its money. I had to go home back to Canada, but then I went to London when the person I was with moved for his job. 

I couldn’t find a job in business here, and I had to do something because they were going to kick me out for visa problems. So I enrolled in photography school. I guess that’s another beginning: a three-year program and then a two-year Master’s program, all for the visa, actually. Everyone thought it was a little odd back then to study for five years just to take a picture.

H: Was that judgment mostly from your family?

SG: Well, the family wasn’t very happy. They had a vision of me in a suit behind a desk. My family predicted that I would be in my jeans and t-shirt forever dragging cameras around the world — and that’s kind of what happened. [laughs] As the son, I was supposed to go to college and get a job for the family’s sake. And I kind of abandoned them altogether, financially and in other ways. I suddenly had more queer family than actual family. They weren’t very thrilled about that either. They saw themselves in competition with the other folk.  

H: How did you find that queer family and maintain it as you moved from Montreal to New York to London?

SG: Montreal was easy because I was single and an undergraduate, and out all the time. The university lesbian and gay student society had all kinds of events and dances. That’s never happened to me again — we all lived in the center, and the campus was there, and the gay bars were there. It was quite cozy and non-threatening.

New York was different, though it was filling up with gay men at that point. I used to shoot on Christopher Street every weekend. There were hundreds of people coming down, promenading, seeing and being seen. Daytime cruising was a full-time activity. I’d never seen that before, a public place where you could go. 

H: Are there any particular moments from that time that have stuck with you?

SG: Oh yes, because people were friendly. If you walked into a gay bar, people would say “hi” to you in that American way. The scene had developed and heavy-duty sex was possible so easily in the mid-’70s in Chelsea that going to a bar and saying hello didn’t mean “let’s go to bed now.” You could do that just by walking down the road if you wanted to. Bars could just be social, over a beer. So that’s how I met people. Then I met some people who were particularly interested in photography. The two things were coming together.  

Me and my friends in general were trying to generate a kind of gay liberation by being very visible on the street. Which is hard to imagine now, you know, just walking hand in hand, being deliberate. That felt very open in those days. 

H: Were there any specific queer artists you considered to be part of your cohort or your peers in photography?

SG: No, I found that the photo world was really straight in New York. People like Duane Michals lived in a very different kind of [sphere] and I couldn’t reach anyone like that. I came across some people starting out like me, but they were usually not people of color. There were just White gay guys who were interested in photography. Then I came to London, which was full of South Asians. But suddenly there was a color problem, which I hadn’t experienced before. People felt able to say things to me. Some guy on the subway said, “I think you should go home.” And I thought he meant, like, back to my apartment. I said, “I just came from there, what do you mean?” [laughs]

H: That’s the best response!

SG: And then on the gay scene, people were more responsive to my being Indian. I think my being Indian in Manhattan in the mid-70s was as if nobody had heard of India. And it was the end of the ’60s, so if they did, they associated it with drugs and meditation and, you know …

H: All the stereotypes, right. I feel like now at least in New York, there’s a strong South Asian arts world that’s very much rooted in queer community. It sounds like your focus on queer South Asians developed organically from your own experiences.

SG: In my studies, I didn’t find any reference to Indian gays. Actually, there was no reference to anything beyond Europe; gays didn’t appear and gays from Asia didn’t appear for sure. So it became my mission to put something gay and Indian into art history, to tell those stories. Art history is essentially a bunch of stories. I thought our stories should be in there and they weren’t.

When I met more queer South Asians in London, we got more organized and formed groups. I spent my evenings going to meetings about something or the other. I emerged in the early ’80s into a very post-colonial moment, and postmodern in terms of aesthetics. I ran immediately into the Black Arts movement. Everybody with heritage from Britain’s former colonies banded together. I used to go to group meetings hosted by a gay Black group, but it was inviting to everybody “postcolonial” — Chinese, Irish. Eventually, a group of us realized that South Asian gays had a very particular kind of problem: They all lived at home and had few opportunities, time-wise, because their families kept an eye on where they were. So we made another subgroup specifically around South Asian lesbians and gays. 

H: What was that organization called?  

SG: I believe the group was called Shakti. [DJ] Ritu, the woman who runs Club Kali now — an ongoing, longtime South Asian queer night in London — was part of it. She’d been a student when I first met her. We decided that we’d have to meet on Sunday afternoons for tea and samosas, because that was the only time people could be absent from their families. They could have Sunday lunch at home and then vanish for a couple of hours before the family started asking questions.

The idea of the club night emerged from this group. Young guys coming into their 20s were having a lot of issues dealing with homophobia at home and racism in the gay scene, which was very White-dominated. There weren’t any other spaces. If they went out on their own, they’d sort of disappear into this invisibility. The Asianness didn’t come out. There were all these glossy gay mags at the time, you know, with glamorous centerfolds. And they never had an Indian in it. We never saw ourselves represented in gay culture around us, and most of the families were not accepting. Part of our group’s task was that sometimes us senior ones — I was 27 and they were 23 — would escort a little group to various gay spaces like clubs or pubs. The other people in the room would step away if they saw a group of us. They weren’t used it.

H: That’s wild. A lot of your photography combats that racism in queer spaces, which continues to be a problem, by bringing visibility to queer South Asians not just in the diaspora but also in India. Could you talk a bit about how you began making these series, like Exiles, The New Pre-Raphaelites, and Mr. Malhotra’s Party?

SG: In the ’80s and ’90s, I went to India and couldn’t find anybody willing to be in a photograph and be identified as gay. They’d turn their backs so they couldn’t be seen. I made the Exiles series there, which was never to be shown in India. That was the deal — their families would never see it. That was possible in the analog days. It wasn’t shown in India until the 2000s.

When I went back in 2004, a friend of mine said, “India’s all changed. You can come and show your work. It’ll be fine.” She organized a show [at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi] and we showed the Exiles pictures, finally, and some works that dealt with my HIV-positive status. We put it up, and the sky didn’t fall or anything. In fact, the opposite happened. There was a huge media interest. But I think loads of people came to just stare at me. I hadn’t realized that I was strangely a novelty because press talked about this little show which is gay and HIV positive and I’m very openly just sitting there. 

But the curator, my friend, had the good sense to find a second room across a little courtyard with two series of film screenings. One series came from the Indian government about safer sex and AIDS-related messaging shorts. Terrible scripts and awful acting, but they were kind of funny. The other was organized by a local university-based activist group that sourced independent shorts from India. In the courtyard in between, she’d organized tea and samosas. That always attracts everyone, and it became a gay space for a couple of weeks. So that was fun. I didn’t feel threatened, and nobody attacked me for being gay or for being HIV-positive. In fact, I decided I was going to move back. I turned 50 and for all kinds of reasons, things were on the wane in London. The Black Arts movement had come to an end, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing here at that point. There was very little photography and very little gay liberation. I thought, well, I can redo everything again. So I did.

H: Did you find other queer artists to collaborate with when you first moved back to India? 

SG: There were hardly any. That’s the problem. I think there were so few artists because there was no way to survive there as an artist. One boy in our activist group was an art student, so he did graduate and make queer work. But there’s little systemic support for it in South Asia because there’s no arts council. There’s no grant-giving body you can apply to. It’s all commercial, which means that somebody has to buy it. It’s for collectors.

I realize there are, of course, gay collectors in India. But most are married and in the closet. And the last thing they want to do is buy gay work and advertise it to their families, you know? They used to come to me and say, “Maybe tone it down a bit.” Meanwhile, people were trying to change the [Section 377] law. It changed while I was there for the first time in 2009. By 2008, we had a Pride March in Delhi. But then of course, the law reversed in 2013 and all that changed back.

There was this whole new generation of activists I met who were coming out of university then, so they were maybe in their 20s. I remember going to somebody’s 20th birthday party. People there were quite happy to be photographed for Mr. Malhotra’s Party, which started that way. They’re all facing the camera. They also modeled for The New Pre-Raphaelites. Very explicitly they were happy to do that. Things had completely changed, and I wanted to show that in the pictures in terms of the subjects’ willingness to be out and open.

H: I’d love to hear more about your connection to the next generation of queer artists.

SG: [My husband] is 25 years younger than me, so I’m often around younger people. We had to start from scratch here in London. He went back to art school [for an MFA and PhD] because he never had a chance to go. We got very involved and I began teaching art here. We go to a lot of student shows, and London’s full of art schools. It’s like New York; all kinds of little studios and spaces, a low-budget scene and then big-budget galleries and everything. We’ve been actively searching out the emerging, younger lot, many of whom are queer. There are young, radical queer arts organizations we’ve engaged with. One of them is called Queercircle, which we’ve worked with recently.

We also find like-minded people who’ve come out of art history, who write and who curate, who are thinkers rather than makers. So that’s quite nice. And then we live in our studio, which is a loft. It’s a great space to bring people together and make nice Indian food, which everybody likes. It goes a long way. If it’s five people or 10, we can feed them.

So it’s a kind of adda — that’s an old Indian idea of a crossroad with a bus stop, a place to chitchat and talk about whatever. And we find it’s the younger people who are more open to it.

Sunil Gupta, “Charan” from the series Mr. Malhotra’s Party (2007) (© Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024; image courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Materià Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery)

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