Pre-Raphaelites Re-Visited : narratives of a gay life.
"Sunil Gupta’s series of 10 images titled ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’ has been produced in response to Autograph Director Mark Sealy’s commission on work related to the Human Rights’ Agenda with reference to India.
Currently under constitutional challenge at the Delhi High Court, section 377 of the India Penal Code is an archaic law instituted by the British in 1860 that criminalizes homosexuality. Also referred to as the Anti-Sodomy Law, section 377 has continually led to the arbitrary arrest and exploitation of large sections of Indians, mostly gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Inevitably this has led to a closet culture where alternate sexuality has been pushed underground making it very difficult to research and treat serious medical problems such as STDs and HIV/AIDS. The movement to repeal section 377 has been led by the Naz Foundation India Trust, an activist group concerned with restoring constitutional rights to this invisible group.
Sunil Gupta’s photographic work over the last 30 years is an autobiographical documentation of a life’s debate with issues of gender, sexuality, displacement and, since the diagnosis in 1995, HIV/AIDS. Sunil’s direct, tight images have forced viewers to confront the hypocritical juxtaposition of accepted normative structures within alternate social realities. Sunil has photographed what he knows best, from the gut, and both his books are a testimony to that faith, the transparent interplay of private and public.
Sunil has been in the forefront of the gay rights’ movement in India since his return. Within the last 4 years his activism has been the most compelling face in the media and the arts space in India. He is out there in the middle of the debate on section 377, speaking openly about his sexuality and empowering others to do the same. This dramatic moment had to find powerful representation and Sunil turned to the Pre-Raphaelites for inspiration when commissioned to make a series of images on a current contentious human rights issue.
The Pre-Raphaelites stood for a reformation of art, for attention to near-photographic detail and colour, the brilliance of which was meant to wipe out the “unstable areas of muddy darkness” that characterised the hypocrisy of the classical Victorian pose. The Brotherhood spoke out against the frivolous pomp of the 18th century, and meant to bring the arts back to sharply focused observation of the “truths of nature”.
Sunil Gupta’s series of 10 images deals with the ‘truths’ of posturing gay couples, single men and women, and families posing romantically between the cutting edge of desire and passion. An unwieldy combination of symbolism and realism, the photographs are filled with the intense luminosity of mythology while concentrating on models (real people) who occupy the spaces of criminal intent within the lines of section 377. Exotically coloured backdrops highlight brilliant costumes, and sometimes nude bodies with a precise devotion to detail that is magnetic. By his own admission, Sunil has evolved into working with the entire gender canvas to include those other protagonists of this struggle. The women portrayed in this series are living in the shadows of the gay movement, free of the criminality of sodomy, but hunted down by society and even burnt alive by their families who would rather bury them than face ostracism.
The implicit ideal of romanticism, of freedom being inseparable from responsibility, has always run a slender thread through Sunil’s entire work. This time it has woven itself a tapestry of storytelling, as compelling as Tennyson’s ‘poem, the ‘Lady of Shallot’. Each ‘new’ Pre-Raphaelite image refers specifically to an original painting by one of the masters, for example John Everett Millais’s ‘The Bridesmaid’, and ‘Mariana’ are clearly visible in two of Gupta’s portraits."