reviewpiece: ajamu & sunil gupta

Why have these two photographers been brought together in the same show? What does their work have in common? Looking at the work assembled for this exhibition, the answer to the question might be: very little. In looking for commonality, we might be on firmer ground when considering their individual profiles and identities. One is a man of African ancestry, the other is a man of Asian background. Both have, within the official publicity accompanying the exhibition, been described as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’. But having family roots that lie beyond Europe and being gay are as far as their commonality goes, because these photographers have presented very different and contrasting bodies of work. Having said that, if these two artists are happy to be curatorially paired-off with each other, it may not be for us to question the wisdom of the arrangement.

Ajamu presents us with reworked antique, archival photographs of ‘freaks’ of nature – a three-legged man, another man, armless and legless, and so on. The power of the images is magnified by the diminutive (suddenly, that word becomes so loaded) size of the photographs – they are not much bigger than playing cards.

By contrast, Gupta’s work is decidedly colourful, though I use the word advisedly. He has produced a series of colour diptychs that alternately show the exteriors of ‘gay scene’ night clubs and intimate self-portraits. Not ‘intimate’ as in cozy, but intimate in that they reveal not just the physical body of Gupta himself, but elements of his attitudes towards his (to quote the exhibition brochure) ‘own “condition” – as someone living with HIV, and as an Asian gay man’.

The problem is, one body of work has only the most opaque relevance to the other. Possibly the only tangible relation that the bodies of work have to each other is one of a troubling and problematic contamination. Two distinct and separate solo exhibitions would, I’m sure, have been better and more respectful of each photographer’s practice. After all, within this exhibition, politically potent debates about gay identity, HIV/AIDS etc. are involuntarily cross-referenced with questions about the historical/contemporary depiction of ‘freaks’ of nature...

The full version of the above text by Eddie Chambers was published in Creative Camera, Oct/Nov 1999: 36-37, as reviewpiece: ajamu & sunil gupta [an exhibition, Sunil Gupta: From Here to Eternity and Ajamu Anti/Bodies: A Spectacle of Strangeness, organized by Autograph and shown at Standpoint Gallery, Coronet Street, London N1