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Gupta, Sunil (b. 1953)  
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Internationally prominent artist Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) has gained recognition for his achievements as photographer, curator, and cultural activist. In all of these endeavors, Gupta has explored multiple sexual, racial, and cultural identities and challenged restrictive conventions. Although his work has significant social and political implications, it is consistently poetic and evocative rather than polemical.

Gupta is a native of India, but he is a Canadian citizen who worked primarily in the United Kingdom between 1978 and 2004. His return to India in 2004 has opened up his art to new directions.

Childhood in India

Sunil Gupta was born on September 8, 1953 in New Delhi, India. His father was from a socially respectable North Indian Hindu background. However, his mother, a Tibetan raised by Anglican missionaries, was casteless.

In reminiscences about his childhood, Gupta has emphasized the importance of the numerous relatives, friends, and associates who provided a cohesive and supportive social network for his family. Although he grew up in the densely packed urban environment of New Delhi, he had opportunities to visit relatives in rural areas, where his family owned property.

His family did not have a television, but he enjoyed seeing American motion pictures, which impressed him with their colors and strong story lines. Movies not only provided his introduction to film, but they also ultimately influenced many aspects of his mature work, including his organization of images in extended series and his use of text and other devices to suggest possible narratives.

Although Gupta migrated from India while still a teenager, aspects of its rich cultural heritage impacted his later art. For instance, his representation of the male body without idealization accords with artistic traditions in India, where the human figure is seldom physically heroicized. Furthermore, his interest in bringing together very diverse, and even opposed, images from a wide range of sources might be correlated with the (often unharmonious) blending of very different cultural traditions in modern India, which Gupta has described as "a very big country overlaid with many histories and many cultures . . . a minefield of contradictions."

Migration to Canada

In 1969, Gupta moved with his parents and sister to Montreal. Although his parents expected that the move would benefit the family economically and socially, it had many unforeseen negative consequences, especially for his father, whose health declined as a result of his work as a night porter at a club. Utilizing photos from family albums, recordings of telephone conversations with his mother, and other materials, Gupta later articulated the difficult experiences of his immigrant family in Social Security (1988), commissioned by Canada House, London.

Gupta's nuclear family lived largely in isolation in the center of Montreal, which did not have many South Asian residents at the time. Both Sunil and his sister, Shalini, ultimately made life choices that were not acceptable according to the conventions then prevailing in the Indian middle class. Thus, Gupta's parents opposed his decision to become a photographer, and they never openly acknowledged his homosexuality.

After completing high school in Montreal in 1970, Gupta continued his studies at Dawson College, Montreal, from 1970 until 1972. He became a Canadian citizen in 1972.

Initially planning to fulfill his parents' expectations that he would undertake a business career, Gupta studied for an advanced degree in accountancy at Concordia University from 1972 until 1977, but his real enthusiasm was for film.

Although he has spent only relatively brief periods in Canada since 1983, Gupta retains his Canadian citizenship and considers Canada one of his homelands.

New York, 1976

In Montreal, Gupta had developed his interest in film by frequenting art cinemas and by teaching himself how to take photographs on an amateur basis. In 1976, he resolved to improve his understanding of photography through several months of study at The New School for Social Research in New York City. Among his teachers, he was particularly influenced by Lisette Model, who recognized his talent and encouraged him to make photography his profession.

While in New York, he also was inspired by the Gay Liberation movement, then in full swing, and he resolved to come out and be active in the movement.

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"Untitled #2," a photograph from Sunil Gupta's series The New Pre-Raphaelites (2008-2009). Image courtesy Sunil Gupta.
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