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.
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.