The British are currently engaged in a roaring debate about immigrants to their green and pleasant land. Or so the nation’s press would have us believe.
In studying two titles in the new series of monographs from Autograph, it has been much more illuminating to witness the experience of Ingrid Pollard, who made the transition from Georgetown, Guyana to England when still a baby, and Sunil Gupta, whose diasporic journey from India has encompassed New York, Montreal and London.
Pollard has deployed her cinematic vision in an intensely personal, stridently political investigation of the black experience in the UK, often using landscape to express ideas of otherness. Gupta has focused on the body as primary referent to achieve an equally absorbing corpus, challenging attitudes to “difference”.
From Delaware Dykes to Birmingham Black Sisters, Pollard documented the powerful political movements of the 1980s, demanding recognition as a black woman,
as a lesbian, and certainly achieving it as a photographer in 1987, with a series of pictures called Pastoral Interlude. Using a highly stylised image of a lone black figure in the unexpected landscape of the Lake District, her intention to surprise still succeeds; we see clearly why she “wandered lonely as a black face in a sea of white”. To this day, the association of a black face with an urban environment persists.
In Seaside Series, Pollard sets herself up as the subject of her pictures, appearing tiny and insignificant in the streets of Hastings, and then juxtaposing these images with cutouts of the usual tourist tat, which promotes England’s matchless feudal heritage with a vulgar pride.
The one failing is that to find the date of particular picture, we have to turn to the index, where this important information is secreted away at the back of the book. When confronted with an image of a young Maya Angelou or Alice Walker, we want to place it at once on our inbuilt historical timeline.
This is a relatively minor quibble in a book otherwise so rich in information and ideas. Its finest moment arrives with the dream-like sequences of the series Self Evident. Here, Pollard puts a unique stamp on her work and her world, ensuring everyone knows she existed, and possibly proving it to herself.
Sunil Gupta grew up in India in the 1960s. The family had no television, so Gupta’s visual heritage is pure Bollywood, strong on narrative, high on colour. His occasional forays into the black and white oeuvre have equal impact, as shown in his insightful series Reflections of the Black Experience. The portraits have depth and intimacy, capturing what it means to feel “fear” in the picture bearing that stark title, to be gay, to be an immigrant, to be elderly (in this unforgettable image, the black woman seems to be enjoying life considerably more than her white companion).
Embracing gay lib wholeheartedly as a student in 1970s New York, it wasn’t until Gupta studied at London’s Royal College of Art in the 1980s that he began to examine his sexual orientation in tandem with his race. Where were all the gay Indians? We discover them in Exiles (a commission for The Photographers’ Gallery) on the peripheries of Delhi society, separated from their culture by their sexuality. Unwilling to “spy” on unsuspecting men, Gupta honed his skill of “creating subjective reality in a real place”. Tremendous tenderness is palpable in the picture Lakshmi, where two men in dresses worthy of Bananarama embrace under a picture of Shiva. Yet Gupta sensed a lack of critical engagement with the pictures and, tellingly, when one of the images from this series reappeared in an exhibition at Tate Britain, it took its place in the black artists’ room, not in an adjacent room depicting images of the body.
In Trespass, a three part series which took years to complete, Gupta experiments with murals and photomontage to find new ways of expressing migrant culture and thoughts of love. Before completing the series, Gupta discovers he is HIV positive.
The final series chosen for Pictures from Here, Homelands, is an ode to youth and age, beauty and decay, doom and hope, India and the West … finally the landscape takes on the same importance as Gupta’s inner life. These beautifully realised pictures trace his journey back to his father’s village in Uttar Pradesh, to downtown Montreal, back to Chelsea, New York. With them comes a sense that Sunil Gupta has finally arrived.