Paul Mpagi Sepuya, artist, Los Angeles

with Jameson Paige

Paul Mpagi Sepuya is an artist who currently lives and works in Los Angeles. He works primarily in photography, finding subjects through friendships and capturing intimate, yet ambiguous moments. These are often collaged with literature or conversations, either in a single piece or across a series of objects. His work is as much about photography’s formal concerns as it is about the fluidity of relationships.

Paul has the adept ability to constantly complicate his work. He is able to leverage certain modes of legibility (queerness, photography, etc.), but as soon as they become familiar, he shifts the viewer’s understanding of the work towards a new way of looking.

Much of my own research engages with how artists use their practices to contend with identity. I find the available institutional frameworks offered by the art world are often unable to fully realize artists’ intelligence and complexity. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to presenting artwork that digs into identity. I am drawn to Paul’s work because of its ability to be plural in its meaning but also not easily determined. As he mentions in the interview below, he does not address identity directly, but different signifiers may pop up as tangents in his work. There is a fuzziness or opacity that veils the subjects in his photographs and the spaces he creates. Just when it appears you’ve figured it out, you’re pulled around a new corner.

Paul and I had a casual phone conversation in early May. I followed up via email with four questions, and received four answers.


Victor, 2011

blue double square

JAMESON PAIGE: I really enjoyed reading about and hearing you explain what you call ‘studio time.’ It seems through the dislocation of the studio as a physical site, there is the potential for the construction of queered space that relies on modes of indeterminacy, fluidity, and experimentation. Can you expand upon how the reality of not having a studio space led to the concept of studio time, and how this transition relates to a queer orientation of space? How has this line of thinking changed or evolved after having studio space in your MFA program?

PAUL MPAGI SEPYUA: It was to find a way to define my practice and way of working, after leaving behind the Studio Museum residency, that refined the idea of studio time. But the idea itself was rooted in the physical site of the studio, having read O’Doherty’s Studio and Cube. Whereas I had first thought of it as a series of recurring and overlapping processes of quotation and revision over time within a particular site, leaving the physical studio behind really helped expand that idea to a practice overall. My work is rooted in my relationships, friendships, and sexuality that is defined by homosexuality and queerness. For me, a queer orientation of space is the same as the queer orientation of my relationships–the openness to flux, to reciprocal creative, sexual and platonic activity that allows us to continually redefine our relationships to each other, the images we create, and how we re-incorporate or otherwise respond to that material generated in the process.

Returning to a studio outside of the creative and social context of New York, one that I did not even realize I had taken for granted for a decade and a half, presented a new set of challenges. It’s too soon to really talk about my post-MFA thoughts, but I came back to Los Angeles and UCLA wanting to re-ground myself in photography specifically. All the larger social operations I wanted to narrow down to the operations of making and looking at photographs.


ALL IMAGES BY PAUL SEPUYA: Image 1, Studio January 27th, 2014


Studio work detail_2013

Studio Work detail, 2013

JP: I did not realize the relational components that bookend your photographs were technically a part of the work. It seems silly for me to have thought of them as separate now that we’ve spoken, but can you elaborate on how the relationships with your portrait sitters are a part of the work? I think it’s particularly interesting to think about how the act of photographing becomes an exercise of intimacy unto itself, potentially strengthening or altering your relationship to your subjects.

PS: At its simplest, there has to be a mutual investment in the work and its life in the world. Because photography gives us objectified fragments of ourselves, of others, all subject to the manipulative play of our desires, the most essential ethic of photography is care. Everything else follows.

Portrait study 1_2016

Portrait Study 1, 2016

JP: Taking into account how your work has been codified either by curators or critics, I’m wondering how you negotiate identity in your work, if at all–either your own identity or issues beyond yourself. I know you mentioned one of the reasons for returning to school to get an MFA was to regain control of your work’s narrative. Did that at all have to do with how the art world has potentially read your work inappropriately along the lines of identity, or even pigeonholed you?

PS: Rather than misread, I’d say my work has been open to many complementary and conflicting interpretations. I don’t make work about race, but it may intersect with ideas about it. I use sexuality formally and take it as a given. It’s up to me to direct that narrative. I resist any way of reading work that doesn’t take my whole life into consideration for interpretation.

Study for roses at night_2006-15

Study For Roses at Night, 2006-15

JP: Along those lines, I’m curious if you might think of your work and practice/process as queer in its composition. There is certainly a really exciting collaging that happens across medium and texts which for me generates some opacity and ambiguity in reading the work. I see the opaque and ambiguous as queer attributes and find them recurring beyond your photographs. For example, I love your stand-in for an artist statement, what you call a “Script for Some Recent Pictures.” It completely shows your work’s complexity and how legibility becomes extremely subjective and constructed. The layer it adds to understanding your work, especially in contributing to the strange intimacies represented in your photographs is really fascinating to me. Would you elaborate on how queerness plays out in both your process and the final works, and if those two modes of queerness are at all different or the same? Within this question I’m also thinking of your interest in how photography works, what I think you called the shared subjectivities of social, sexual, and artistic spaces.

PS: It’s best played out when considering that homosexuality and queerness are coded, and though open to all, take advantage of privileged knowledge or experience for reading or making sense of particular works at hand. A lot of the content of my work can only be explained in gossip, in particular social relationships hinted on by the pictures, through recognition or misrecognition that keys in my relationships to subjects that suggests larger ideas. So asking about queerness in composition, how collage functions in the camera or in the studio space, all refers back to these subjective elements made formal.

Self-Portrait study with two fingers_2015

Self-Portrait Study with Two Fingers, 2015

  • with Jameson Paige

    Paul Mpagi Sepuya:

    Jameson Paige:

    Image 1, Studio January 27th, 2014
    Image 2, Studio Work detail, 2013
    Image 3, Victor, 2011
    Image 4, Portrait Study 1, 2016
    Image 5, Study For Roses at Night, 2006-15
    Image 6, Self-Portrait Study with Two Fingers, 2015