Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s deconstructed gaze

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Sepuya’s fragmented studio images undo an archetypal photographic genre

Paul Mpagi Sepuya takes fundaments of photography and subverts them. Portraiture and more specifically studio portraiture form the basis of his work, but Sepuya does not employ the studio as a space in which to create a photographic illusion — perfectly lit portraits of carefully composed sitters. Rather, he breaks down these conventions through fragmentation, layering, and mirror imagery that reveal the different elements involved, from the physical set-up of a photograph to the social dynamics at play.

The artist’s first major museum survey, currently on show at Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, comprises work from the past 13 years. One may read the images as unravelling traditional studio photography through visual techniques and a historically marginalised black, queer gaze. In contrast to the direct and fixed approach often associated with the genre, Sepuya’s perspective is complex. The photographer calls attention to the act of looking — demanding us to consider our relationship to the subject as much as he does his own.

“I want to heighten the viewer’s awareness of their position”

In Sepuya’s work, the studio emerges as a safe space and the images capture this. We sense the photographer’s closeness to his subjects, and when there are pairs or groups of subjects, the intimacy among them. “It is important that there is a relationship outside of the images, a mutual interest in the resulting work,” explains Sepuya. “There is a big difference for me between the larger realm of pictures of people and portraits. I do not cast photographs. I don’t photograph models or people I do not know.”

Below, Sepuya discusses his working process and the concepts that underlie it.

Study for friendship, D.C.S. and F.C. (2106), 2015. Courtesy the artist; DOCUMENT, Chicago; team (gallery, inc.); and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

How do you want your photographs to affect viewers?

I want them to be excited — in every way that the word implies.

In the era of the selfie and the camera phone, has your work taken on a new significance? And if so, how?

That is a good question and something I am working through. The speed and distribution of photographs in a fine art context creates a certain restraint — it is about creating value for an art object. But there is another value in the ability of pictures (made and distributed on cellphone cameras) to circulate as currency — socially, sexually, culturally — in another kind of economy. That is the place that some new photographs I am working on are attempting to question. I have been making photographs while allowing friends to use their phones to make images during our sittings. I hope they will be interesting — revealing pictures within pictures.

How do you conceive of your portraits? Are the compositions pre-planned or do they develop as you work? 

The portraits rarely stray from the pre-existing archetypes of the genre: seated or standing figures in the artist’s studio. Details in the studio influence the look and environment in which the portraits take place. The final aspects of the pictures develop as I work, and are informed by the photographs that preceded them.

Darkroom Mirror (_2060999). 2017. Courtesy the artist; DOCUMENT, Chicago; team (gallery, inc.); and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

What do you find so interesting about the realm of the studio, and the act of taking a studio photograph?

I am interested in the framework of the studio that I build on and play with. That framework includes a long view of art history and the personal timespan of my own practice. It is a practice that cycles back, works made within are disseminated to the outside world, are transformed and make their way into the studio in dynamic ways. The studio is able to simultaneously hold many different points in time, images and objects across various projects, to welcome people, and allow for the transformation of all those things. A studio practice comes to develop its own language and references.

How do you work with your sitters? How would you describe your relationship with them?

They are friends, and we have fun. It is playful so there is a lot of enacting aspects of our friendship and sexuality. It’s all very simple but requires a lot of forethought and foundation in terms of trust, intimacy, and curiosity.  It is extremely important to extend that trust, in terms of treating each other and the resulting images with care, as we become subjects of images apart from ourselves.

Mirror Study for Joe (_2010980). Courtesy the artist; DOCUMENT, Chicago; team (gallery, inc.); and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

You disrupt your portraits with layering, fragmentation, and mirror imagery. Is this intended to encourage a heightened awareness in viewers of what they are looking at? And, if so, why?

Yes indeed and with the Mirror Studies, I particularly wanted to make photographs that were straightforward in revealing their own making. Not using the surface of the mirror as a trick, but letting it be present.

I want to heighten the viewer’s awareness of their position. The photographs allow the viewer to gaze into a private space. However, the fact of the mirror in their making reveals the exclusion of the viewer because, in looking at the surface of a mirror, all included subjects are present in the reflected image. The viewer is allowed to see while being simultaneously excluded formally and conceptually. Only those things that exist outside of the formal concerns of art can allow for that inclusion: the recognition and social proximity of the viewers to the subjects.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya is on show at Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, until 14 March 2020.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.