Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Volume 5, Issue 2
spring 2015
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Moe Gardner
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

South Asian Photographs Across the Discipline

Mohit Manohar

 
Photo
“Anokhi” by Sunil Gupta
 

Sunil Gupta photographs, and the people in them, have a resolute look. Take for example “Anokhi” from the series Mr. Malhotras’s Party (2007 – ), which shows a twenty something woman in a blue salwaar-kameez posing with her hands on her hips. Anokhi confronts us so confidently that her gaze seems almost to dare us to look away. Another photograph, “Nisha,” shows a sex worker leaning calmly against a cement foundation. In the low evening light her figure casts a shadow that stretches all the way to the banyan tree behind her. She looks at us coolly, relaxed, the sunset in her eyes.

The Whitney Humanities Center exhibited a selection of Sunil Gupta’s photographs from Mr. Malhotras’s Party and Homelands (2001 – 2003) in February 2015 as part of the spring seminar series “South Asian Photographs Across the Discipline.” Gupta was born in India in 1953, but his family moved to Canada when he was a child, and he is now based in London. A diptych from Homelands, which puts a view of a tomb in Delhi next to a shot of the New York skyline, mirrors his peripatetic life. The warm colors of India sit oddly yet comfortably against the cool colors of America. A skein of power lines cutting across the sky of Delhi connects with a foreground screen of cables in New York and binds these places. Unlike the other photographs in the exhibition, this one does not focus on human figures, yet the sense of human connection and displacement is particularly poignant here.

The exhibition’s opening was followed by a panel discussion between Gupta, Laura Wexler (WGSS, American Studies), Deepali Dawan (Royal Ontario Museum), Sandra Matthews (Hampshire College), and Esa Epstein (sepia EYE, NYC). Gupta is a prominent gay-rights activist, and the discussion focused on issues of gender, sexuality, and nationality in his oeuvre. Cutting across these themes was the perennial issue of photography’s conflicting roles as artistic medium and journalistic tool on the one hand, propagandist and advertising machine on the other.

These conversations provided Gupta an opportunity to share interesting details about his projects not evident from the photographs themselves. The audience learned, for example, that the people photographed in Mr. Malhotras’s Party—who come from diverse and unrelated socio-economic and religious backgrounds—were separated only by one or two degrees through a complicated chain of friends and lovers. As Gupta related these stories, the photographs took on a familiar and personal touch, but still retained their cool confidence. It is this combination of the familiar and the defiant that lends Gupta’s photographs their particular beauty and intrigue.

Mohit Manohar
1st year graduate student, History of Art

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