Three thought-provoking new photographic exhibitions at The Art House, Wakefield

Over the summer, visitors to the Art House in Wakefield have the opportunity to view three thought-provoking photographic exhibitions. Internationally renowned artist Sunil Gupta is presenting his first solo show in Yorkshire revisiting his acclaimed ground-breaking project Lovers: Ten Years On which he first began in the mid-1980s, reframing the lives of gay couples and challenging attitudes which were prevalent at the time.
Sunil Gupta and his husband Charan Singh with one of Charan's self portraits from his exhibition The Promise of Beauty at The Art House in Wakefield. Picture: Bruce RollinsonSunil Gupta and his husband Charan Singh with one of Charan's self portraits from his exhibition The Promise of Beauty at The Art House in Wakefield. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Sunil Gupta and his husband Charan Singh with one of Charan's self portraits from his exhibition The Promise of Beauty at The Art House in Wakefield. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“The series was actually prompted by my own relationship break-up and I went out in search of meaning,” he says. “I didn’t expect us to break up; I felt like I had failed somehow and I wanted to find out how other gay couples made it work. I was interested in meeting as many gay couples as I could and really studying them. With my photographs, as an image maker, I was trying to shift the focus away from the stereotype of gay men as very body centric, a view that was perpetuated by the media and popular culture in imagery of the community at that time.” Gupta photographed the couples he met in their domestic setting, creating a new narrative and identity. It was a project that presented a fresh perspective and provided a significant socio-political commentary.

As the original series now approaches its 40th anniversary, Gupta has expanded the project to make a new series Lovers Revisited, in collaboration with his creative partner and husband Charan Singh. Together they have made large-scale digital colour works, on display alongside a selection of images from Lovers: Ten Years On, documenting couples from around the world, as well as reshooting one of the participants from the original series. “Reshooting Emily who had been one of my subjects back in the 1980s prompted the collaboration,” says Gupta. “It felt like it needed to be a whole series.” And the plan is for it to continue to grow. “It is an ongoing project,” says Singh. “We are inviting more couples to be part of it and we are shooting in different geographical locations across Europe and further afield. So, we are also looking at the idea of borders. Forty years on it has now become an intergenerational collaboration which is a key concern of the work.”

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Sunil Gupta and his husband Charan Singh with their collaborative work Lovers Revisited at The Art House in Wakefield. Picture: Bruce RollinsonSunil Gupta and his husband Charan Singh with their collaborative work Lovers Revisited at The Art House in Wakefield. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Sunil Gupta and his husband Charan Singh with their collaborative work Lovers Revisited at The Art House in Wakefield. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The third exhibition at the Art House is Singh’s first major solo exhibition The Promise of Beauty. In a series of brand-new large-scale colour photographs, Singh explores the act of performing for the camera, while questioning the genre of self-portraiture using photography, film and sculpture. The work was created in Wakefield following a meeting between Singh and Damon Jackson-Waldock, programme director of the Art House.

“I met Damon just after I had finished my PhD and I was talking to him about the kind of work I was interested in making,” says Singh. “He offered me studio space at the Art House and support and the project really started from there – I made the work in Wakefield and then they offered me a show.” The exhibition brings together a series of six monumental photographic self-portraits that re-examine and recreate minor figures from Company Paintings – a hybrid style that developed during the colonial period in British India. “They were usually portraits of the elite,” says Singh. “And I wanted to disrupt and unsettle that by bringing in figures you would not normally see in those paintings, such as a cleaner or a gardener or someone who worked in the house.”

He chose self-portraiture for a variety of reasons. “I am now in my mid-forties and it is a time of life when you are no longer a desired subject,” he says. “So I am exploring the idea that beauty promises something and we are invited to see beauty in a certain way. It is all about physique and body image, ableism and often colour. How can a person who looks like me be a subject of desire? In a self-portrait you are making that gaze happen and there is a tension in that.”

The exhibitions have had a very positive response so far. “The various aspects of the installation have proved to be quite popular,” says Gupta. “It includes a historical timeline for context, in terms of the attitude of the law to homosexuality which echoes what is still happening in some parts of the world today. I have lived through a period when things seemed to be fixed – there were straight people and gay people and now it is much more fluid, our identity is in flux. You can be anything and you can change your mind, which is a good thing. My hope is that the shows will provide food for thought in the juxtaposition of the past and present of queer identity.”

Sunil Gupta: Lovers: Ten Years on and Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh: Lovers, Revisited, run at the Art House, Wakefield until August 31. Charan Singh: The Promise of Beauty runs until August 17.