Reflections on Bolo Bolo

HIV/AIDS, 'Black Arts', and LGBTQ rights

  • Bolo Bolo
  • Ian Rashid and Kaspar Saxena
  • Canada, 1991, 30 mins
Early Pride march, Montreal, c. 1972
Early Pride march, Montreal, c. 1972.

Looking back at that moment in 1991 of direct action against inaction and invisibility, that is the backdrop of this film, was profoundly moving, although, it is not a time one wants to revisit. It is also a time when a generation of arts professionals of colour came of age and began to speak out into the void. There were many levels to this ‘coming out.’ To speak about sex, sexuality and homosexuality was itself relatively new, and furthermore to talk about it within a racial minority, particularly concerning HIV/AIDS was very unusual. Saxena and Rashid were pioneers breaking the silence around South Asian homosexuality in Canada, a silence that was making their subjects especially vulnerable to HIV.

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It’s especially poignant for me to re-watch the video after all these years because it starts with a shot of me looking, let’s say very healthy, a few years before my own HIV diagnosis. And I’m calmly recounting my early years as a sexually active underage child and teenager in New Delhi. All this activity, however, didn’t have a vocabulary except a derogatory one. It wasn’t until I immigrated to Montreal arriving just in time for gay liberation via ‘Gay McGill’ in the early 1970s that I was able to embrace and name my sexuality. One of my immediate affirming actions was to ‘come out’ to my parents with the promise of helping them with their lack of understanding.

Many visuals in the film brought back so many personal memories of people and places in Toronto which at the time I didn’t realise perhaps were going to resonate in my own life. I had of course already left Canada for the UK by 1977 and by the time the film was made, I’m speaking not only as an immigrant but also an emigrant. I spent the 1980s at the heart of Black Arts in London principally through photography, the Race Equality Unit at the GLC and the formation of Autograph-ABP in 1988. We people of non-Anglo-Saxon English-speaking origin clubbed ourselves together as ‘Black’ in the sense of our post-colonial moment. Early shows like ‘the Colours of Black’ included the Irish, descendants of another troubled English colony.

One of our South Asian problems was to convince the others that we were ‘black’, a lot of them didn’t think they were. Then using culture as a tool became another issue as our communities mainly preferred to be left alone to their films and music, mosques and temples. They hadn’t come to London and maybe Canada to take on the host’s cultural values. Then, of course, there were shades of blackness, but all of this was left to internal politicking and conferencing. To the larger world, we tried to present a unified block to try and gain strength in numbers. The larger body politic was our goal, to shape and influence policy.

Sunil Gupta with parents, Montreal 1971.
With my parents, Montreal c. 1971.

As this metropolitan re-interpretation of cultural policy began to be successfully rewritten by the GLC, it came to the attention of people elsewhere and in a way, re-kindled my dialogue with Canada. One of the starting points was an invitation from Ian Rashid to speak at ‘Desh Pardesh’ in Toronto about my experiences organising around ‘Black Arts’ as a very out gay man of Indian origin. 1991 was also an extraordinary year for me as I had just launched several curated projects: a show of South Asian Photography from the UK, a show of photography from India in London, and at the same time had also launched two major co-curated project; one around black identities for Autograph and one about the impact of HIV/AIDS in the UK. I must have arrived in Toronto thinking we were at the forefront of some unstoppable change that every one that came after us would not have to struggle in the same way as us.

Black Experience GLC.

From the vantage point of today though one can see that that’s not the case. There’s been no smooth overwhelming change. In London, Black Arts became New Internationalism, soon overshadowed by the mainly white YBA’s in 1990s Thatcher’s Britain. The slide towards neo-liberalism and individualism had begun. The issues of South Asian women and men coming out remains a big problem, widely misunderstood by the mainstream white community. One of the highlights of the film for me remains Himani Bannerjee’s clear exposition that the problem is that for South Asians identity has to with social and familial markers not with who one’s sexual partner is. Over the years, I have seen how this unwillingness to ‘come out’ has put South Asians on the backfoot and helped to ghettoise them on the gay scene. Nothing was coming from the sub-continent to back up any justifying claims here in the diaspora. However, in the last few years, we have seen a substantial public debate on LGBTQ rights in India, the writing down of its colonial anti-sodomy law, and general acceptance by the media of queer people.

with Fakroon Lakdawalla, one my closest and virtually only South Asian gay friends, Montreal c. 1973
With Fakroon Lakdawalla, one my closest and virtually only South Asian gay friends, Montreal c. 1973.

In India, part of this victory was driven by HIV/AIDS ironically. It arrived as a straight plague but forced the subcontinent to come out of its shell and talk publicly about sex and inevitably about homosexuality. This development led to the creation of funded safe spaces where the dialogues could begin around sexuality in general. So, while the film was both exploring South Asian queer sexuality, it was doing it under the rubric of HIV/AIDS. The breaking the silence of “public symptoms/private shame” as mentioned by Himani. Our relationship with HIV/AIDS has entirely changed in the intervening decades. Diagnosed in 1995, so my relationship indeed adapted to the virus. But nowadays with ‘prep’ and dating apps, a new sexual revolution is underway. One that South Asians are part of and can’t be said to be dying of ignorance any longer.

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Sunil Gupta
Merging cultural activism and photography, Sunil Gupta creates compositions that exist within the frames of politics and theatre to explore themes of identity and homosexuality. His works deal with issues surrounding homosexuality, particularly the personal and social implications of being homosexual in both Eastern and Western societies. View bio.
Rungh Cultural Society