The Limits of Freedom: Reviewing Shilpa Gupta's Sun at Night exhibition

Set in the Barbican Centre’s intimate Curve Gallery, Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta centres her first major London exhibition, Sun at Night, around themes of freedom of expression and what it means to be confined in one’s own space. Whilst not definitively linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and more shining a light on the plight of political prisoners, the smaller spaces of the Curve allude to the social claustrophobia exacerbated by the pandemic; another cause of great suffering for many.

At the entrance to the space, Gupta greets the viewer with two motion flapboards, entitled StilltheyknowwhatIdream, with their transport connotations amplifying the vastness of language and culture, as she interrupts the viewing to create messages that show a dialogue between the two boards. Ranging in expressions from ‘I Love You’ to ‘Let’s Go for a Walk’, Gupta sculpts and manipulates these expressions to highlight the fragility of language and invites us to reflect on our own use of words.

Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night

Installation view

The Curve, Barbican Centre

7 October 2021 – 6 February 2022

© Tim Whitby / Getty Images

The poignance of this particular exhibition is hard to escape in the Curve, where Gupta has scattered fine line drawings, with printed poems and quotes from prominent activists and those who have been imprisoned by their state, such as Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka hidden amongst her slightly smaller sculptures. The range of materials used by Gupta for Sun at Night from gun metal to pencil leads all work to encapsulate the fragility of freedom; freedom to speak, to write, and to protest.

Paying homage to activists and political prisoners, Gupta interlocked a copy of poems by the Malawian poet and writer Jack Mapanje and a memoir by Turkish novelist Orhan Kenal, in which both texts refer to their own incarceration. The frequent references to texts by these activists and others just like them is key to understanding Sun at Night, as Gupta uses her artistic platform to highlight the words of others, many of whom are still voiceless and powerless against systems of oppression they are attempting to overthrow.

Using poetry as a primary focus in this exhibition, Gupta brings an interdisciplinary feel to her work, capturing the poems of protest and resistance from Yannis Ritsos, Anna Barkova, and Osip Mandelstam, among others, who have been referenced previously in glass bottles in Untitled (Spoken Poem in a Bottle), which has been ongoing for Gupta since 2018. The sealing of these words by Gupta allows her to create a statement that evokes a sense of awe from the viewer, experiencing the power of poetry and art as a form of political expression in ways not afforded often by a mainstream society.