Sunil Gupta

with Inês Costa

‘One of the things that drew me to the medium of photography is what the camera sees, and being able to reflect on it as an image later.’

Listen to the full interview here:

I am Sunil Gupta. I was born in New Delhi, and my parents migrated to Canada in the late 60s. I moved to London in the late 70s and received my art training in the UK, and pretty much have worked here ever since.

My practice really began with – and has been trying to hold onto – an idea of photography and politics, especially around gay liberation. Literally that’s where I started, documenting the beginning of gay liberation during my university years in Canada. Over the years, my practice has widened out to encompass more, if you like, fine art, and more to do with education and curating. I feel my practice has a lot of different facets now. I used to write things; essays for people’s work, catalogues, I wrote reviews. I taught undergraduates, and now postgraduates and PhD students. I’ve taught informal workshops for the community, especially for the queer community. This was in India.

It all feeds each other, and there’s not one singular thing I do. Some people seem to think that your artistic practice is just the pictures that you make. That’s not been the case for me. It’s been all that discussion around the pictures, the publication, the dissemination. All those big questions that we asked in the 80s about who can make pictures? Who gets to see them?

What are you showing in The London Open 2022?

I am showing a street picture. I have come back to the street after a long break. I think partly because I now feel old and brazen enough that I can go out there and start taking pictures of people again. That really became impossible from after the 80s and especially during the digital era.

We have selected one picture from a very particular series, located on Walworth Road, which is my local high street. During COVID-19 lockdown, when we could only go as far as a mile, basically my world shrank to from end of Walworth Road near Burgess Park, where I live, to Elephant & Castle and back again. I was doing this every day. And of course, many places were closed or closing. The nature of the high street was changing, so I thought I would document it in a very straightforward photographic way. I began to shoot each shopfront and in the end I’ve collected nearly all the shop fronts on that particular stretch. There are over 180 pictures now, I think. 

How did you feel about getting back into the streets like you had done before in New York and in London?

It felt like a great exercise. I wasn’t sure if it was going to go anywhere. I think I did it as a way of just exercising my photography, and being out and about with a camera. I find that enjoyable. One of the things that drew me to the medium is what the camera sees, and being able to reflect on it as an image later. You’ll see things you hadn’t seen at the time. I’m now quite fascinated by that very modernist outlook on the camera. I am a child of that period. I was taught by Lisette Model, so it’s never really left me despite all these years of art education over here.

This work was a flexing of the visual muscles, in a way, because I didn’t quite know what to do. We were all trapped here.

When we met for the first time, we spoke a bit about the moving from the analogue to the digital, and how you felt about that change.

I think digital did many things. It’s made the medium much more democratic, more user-friendly. Everyone takes a picture now and sends it to their friends. It’s done away with all kinds of in-between institutionalised settings around editing and distribution, so that way it’s been quite revolutionary.

Work in the exhibition:
14/03/2021 11:29:56 from the series Walworth Road, 2021-2
Archival inkjet print
101.6 x 152.4 cm

Courtesy the artist and Hales, London and New York, Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi

Sunil Gupta (b. 1953, New Delhi, India)
2019 PhD University of Westminster
1983 MA Photography, Royal College of Art, London
1981 Dip. Photo, West Surrey College of Art & Design
1977 Bachelor of Commerce (Accountancy), Concordia University, Montreal
1976 The New School for Social Research, New York

Selected solo exhibitions: From Here to Eternity, The Photographers’ Gallery, London and Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto (2022, 2021); Songs of Deliverance, Part I and Part II, Studio Voltaire / St. Mary’s Paddington Hospital and Charing Cross Hospital, London (2022); New Pre-Raphaelites, Holburne Museum, Bath (2021); Christopher Street, Hales Gallery, New York (2019); Queer Migrations, Whitney Humanities Centre, Yale University (2015)

What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?

This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.

Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.

The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.

The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.

The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.

Gallery 1, Downstairs

The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.

Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.

Gallery 9, Upstairs

This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free  2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.

Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?

Gallery 8, Upstairs

The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.

Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.

On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.

The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.

Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.

See the full list of works here.

An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.

Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.