Hello from Ottawa: The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography

My schedule in Ottawa this past weekend was extremely compressed, but there was one place I wasn’t going to miss: the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. As a person with no formal background, yet a keen interest in the visual arts and photography, I have been wanting to visit this museum for a long time. And my Internet research revealed that the Museum is featuring a very special exhibition right now: two photographic series by Sunil Gupta, an Indian-born Canadian citizen, exploring issues of identity, culture and the immigrant experience.
Let me start first with the Museum itself, a rather unique venue in Ottawa with a long history. The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography began its life all the way back in World War II as the Still Photography Museum of the National Film Board. Its activities include collecting, publishing and organizing traveling exhibitions and educational programs to foster the efforts and development of Canadian photographers.

It’s a unique place in a unique venue: the Museum is housed in a former railroad tunnel of the Grand Trunk Railroad. It is accessible through an above-ground entrance immediately west of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel in downtown Ottawa, and an elevator takes you 2 storeys down from street level. As a former railroad tunnel, the Museum’s unique dimensions won’t come as a surprise: it measures 166 meters (545 feet) in length by only 17 meters (56 feet) in width. The facility is more like a 32-storey high-rise building laid on its side.

Even constructing the Museum entailed significant engineering challenges: due to the narrowness of the site, squeezed in between the Chateau Laurier on one side and the Rideau Canal on the other, construction trucks had to back into the site, edging their way half a mile along a road carved in the limestone and shale cliff face.
But I wasn’t only there to explore the unique architectural features of the gallery. The main reason for my visit was an exhibition by Sunil Gupta, whose 2 collections shed light on the immigrant experience.

Sunil Gupta was born in New Delhi in 1953 and came to Montreal with his parents at age 15. Over the years he has also lived in New York City and London and just recently moved back to India. Originally he studied accounting, but later moved into visual arts and photography.

Until April 23, 2006, the Museum features two highly personal collections by this artist. Social Security (1988) features Sunil Gupta’s family photographs and his mother’s words to shed light on the story of one immigrant family in Montreal. His family came from a middle-class background in India, and after their move to Canada they had significant adjustment problems. Sunil’s father was forced to work as a security guard and the family experienced a loss of financial security and social status. This was complicated by the fact that his parents were already in their fifties by the time of the move which made integration into Canadian culture even more difficult.
This photo collection illustrates the fact that his parents had traditional desires for both Sunil and his sister, and neither of the two children fulfilled the role expectations put upon them by their Indian parents. Sunil’s sister ended up marrying an American, something the parents did not support. Sunil himself is actually gay and had several long-term relationships with men, much to the chagrin of his parents. Neither offspring fulfilled the role of marrying an Indian spouse and creating a traditional Indian family. As such, the move to Canada was a big disappointment, particularly for Sunil’s father.

Incidentally Sunil’s father died of a heart attack on a Montreal street in 1986. He wasn’t found until several days later. One particularly gripping photograph shows Sunil’s father’s belongings, money, identification, credit cards, that were removed from his body after his death. It took the authorities three days to notify the family, presumably because his father was assigned to the “immigrant” section of the morgue. Nobody had bothered to check his identification and call his family, even though his father had all the necessary papers on him. And his social security card had been neatly cut in half.

Sunil Gupta’s second photo collection Homelands (2001 to 2003) includes large-scale diptychs that juxtapose images from his experience in the West with images from his home country in India. His exhibition explores highly personal topics, such as Gupta’s homosexuality and the fact that he is HIV positive. Gupta was diagnosed with HIV in 1995.
For me the most powerful image of the collection includes Gupta in front of a mirror, stark naked, facing the camera, with a sliver of his mirror image showing right next to an image of India. My museum guide indicated that Sunil has actually commented that he lives right in that narrow line between East and West.

It seems that his cultural identity is tenuous at best and Sunil decided recently to move back to India to explore his own cultural background. It is significant to mention that India does not accept homosexuality, does not offer treatment required for AIDS patients and doesn’t even officially acknowledge the existence of the disease. In addition India harbours a host of dangerous viruses that pose a constant threat to Sunil’s health. Even beyond that Sunil indicated that he lives in constant fear that his medical condition will be discovered and that he will be deported from India.

Both of Sunil Gupta’s series of photographs are highly personal, where he exposes himself (literally), his family members and the dynamics of an immigrant family in North America. His images use colour, atmospheric influences and juxtaposition to express symbolism and speak of an ongoing struggle to find his own personal, sexual and cultural identity at the confluence of Eastern and Western cultures.

For me personally, Sunil Gupta’s autobiographical photographs were almost shocking in their candor and openness. They talk about the cultural pressures and expectations that face second generation immigrants growing up in a liberal Western environment. Juxtaposed to this external environment is their traditional Eastern family milieu with its strict rules and role expectations, almost imposing a schizophrenic existence on their offspring.

It was rather surprising to me that Sunil Gupta decided recently to move back to a country where, as a gay HIV-positive individual, he is not accepted and it speaks to his overwhelming urge to reconnect with his roots.

The Canadian Museum of Photography is currently also hosting another installation: Imprints: Photographs by Michel Campeau, Marlene Creates, Lorraine Gilbert, Sarah Anne Johnson, and Sylvie Readmen features 19 recent acquisitions that explore nature and its forces as they intersect with the human world.