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Gupta, Sunil (b. 1953)  
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Arts Activism

Gupta demonstrated his commitment to arts activism while still a student at RCA, where he helped to organize the first black student group show in 1983. Through his involvement in that project, he met Ken Livingstone, then Leader of the Greater London Council (and, later, Mayor of London) and other politicians dedicated to multiculturalism. At Livingstone's invitation, he joined the Anti-Racist Year Design Committee, established by the GLC in 1984, and he subsequently participated in numerous other groups that linked arts and political engagement (including Greater London Arts: Black Arts Strategy Policy Group).

As a result, he became part of a closely-knit but informal network of artists from Asian, African, and African-Caribbean backgrounds. Responding to the need for an organization to support photography by individuals from minority communities, he helped to found Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers, in 1988. In collaboration with Monika Baker, Gupta managed all of the activities of Autograph during its initial difficult years, serving as organizer, fund-raiser, writer, and curator. Under the leadership of Gupta and Baker, Autograph supported the development of aspiring artists and sponsored several important exhibitions and seminars, including Autoportraits (1989-90).

During the later 1980s and early 1990s, Gupta curated several important exhibitions for various organizations, including An Economy of Signs: Contemporary Indian Photography (1988-90) and Disrupted Borders: An Intervention in the Definition of Boundaries (1993).

From the perspective of cultural history, the most notable of these exhibitions probably is Ecstatic Antibodies, Resisting the AIDS Mythology, which, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain, toured to various institutions in the UK from 1988 to 1990. Gupta and queer arts activist Tessa Boffin jointly curated this exhibition and edited the book, initially published to accompany the show and subsequently reprinted as an independent volume, providing valuable insights into the epidemic.

From the beginning, Gupta and Boffin intended the project to challenge stereotyped portrayals of individuals with AIDS as objects of fear, revulsion, and pity. To this end, they commissioned both art works and essays from artists involved in communities that had been deeply affected by AIDS. Participating in the exhibition were the most significant, cutting-edge queer artists, then active in the UK, including Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Allan deSouza, Lynn Hewett, and Pratibha Parmar, among others.

For Ecstatic Antibodies, Gupta created No Solutions as a response to the policies of Avtar Singh Paintal, Director-General of the Indian Council for Medical Research, who wanted to ban sex by Indians with foreigners and Non-Resident Indians, as a means of preventing AIDS. As a counterpoint to pronouncements by Paintal (displayed in the exhibition), Gupta produced four large photographs of himself and his British partner, portrayed in their living room in various scenarios, ranging from casual conversation, seated on a couch, to nude embrace. These photographs of an interracial couple challenge the xenophobic proposals of Paintal.

Displayed in pairs with the photographs were reproductions of four large paintings and drawings of Hindu deities. In opposition to the health minister's pronouncements, the religious images remind viewers of the openness to sexual and gender diversity often characteristic of Hinduism in earlier historical periods. In this regard, it is significant that the poses of Gupta and his partner recall the arrangements of sculpted figures of lovers on the exteriors of medieval temples at Khajuraho and elsewhere in northern India.

Art Works of the Later 1980s

Many of the political concerns that motivated Gupta's cultural activism are evident as well in his own artistic projects from the mid-1980s onwards.

For the group exhibition, Reflections of the Black Experience (1986, Brixton Art Gallery), Gupta created a series of photographs about British Asian life. Although the photographers participating in the exhibition were expected to produce objective documentation of the lives of immigrants, Gupta approached the project in a very different way: faking scenes related to a variety of immigrant issues (Fear, Elderly, Family, among others).

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