In the Studio with Paul Mpagi Sepuya

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The flesh reveals itself in slivers and fragmented reflections. In color sometimes. Often in black and white. The curve of a bicep, a strand of hair, pants always dangerously low. L.A.-based photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya mines the sensual spaces of the studio, filling every blank space with a bristling energy.

Since earning his BFA in photography from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA from UCLA, Sepuya has gone on to exhibit at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.,  MOCA Los Angeles, and the New Museum in New York City. His style, which explores the relationship between subject and viewer, has been heralded as a fresh and unique voice on the topic of queer identity. The work feels orchestrated, but also highly personal—like relationships frozen in time. In fact, the subjects of Sepuya’s work are pulled from the artist’s immediate worlds. The images, as a result, are highly intimate, not just in appearance but in substance. Underneath each orchestrated photograph, a real and unseen context.

As 2018 drew to a close, Sepuya let us into his studio to talk early efforts, maternal support, and the ultimate late-’90s introduction to New York City.

Former occupation and your most notable memory there:

I can’t think of the most notable memories from 14 years of arts administration and freelance jobs in New York, but, for the most part of my time, I supported myself by working in the area of Grants and Services at Creative Capital Foundation and as Artist Support Director at the Joan Mitchell Foundation. I learned so much from working behind the scenes and experiencing how grants and fellowships work, how funding and the commercial world impacts artists lives, and lots of to-dos and not-to-dos that I could incorporate into my own life and work.

Were your parents interested in the arts? What did they do for work?

My mom is a retired physical therapist and was in the Air Force. My father is a retired surgeon. My mom has always been 150% supportive [of me], even when I know choosing to go into art worried her constantly. But she never told me that; she just let me push ahead thinking things were great.

You were born on the West Coast but traveled east for college later. What was your first cultural introduction to New York City? 

In 1998, I think it was, I went to New York and got to see a David LaChapelle show at Tony Shafrazi (still in SoHo then) and Destiny’s Child playing at Virgin Megastore in Times Square (an unplanned surprise). I think I lived out my fantasy of an issue of Interview magazine.

What did your most early portraits as a student at NYU capture?

They weren’t portraits and they were pretty terrible.

Your subjects are often “friends, intimates, and muses.” Does the established dynamic of that relationship alter at all during a portrait session? 

That’s a good question. Since the first portrait project in 2005, I quickly realized that the making of portraiture— and all of the production and dissemination of those portraits along social and creative and sexual pathways—has always altered our relationships to the world… and sometimes my friendships, relationships, and acquaintanceships to the subjects of my work. In the current Dark Room project, and in the prior and ongoing Mirror Studies, dynamics of social relations are enacted in the construction of the images. Sometimes role-play ends up producing unexpected—or bringing forth ongoing—aspects of our friendships to the surface. They deal a lot with how desire is embedded in queer sociality.

How do you decide a person would make a good subject for your work?

It’s not about who would be a good subject for my work; it’s who in my life amongst my friends and relationships is a part of the work.

Studio spaces themselves can feel loaded—with expectation, desire, etc. What about the studio space is most of interest to you personally and why?

What’s most of interest to me is the studio as a site that gathers, accumulates, combines, and re-combines material, images, multiple tenses of time. It sets up a framework. Not all of my images are made in my studio and and much of the material in the “collage” comes from the outside, social world. At times, I have re-created aspects of my studio in the Dark Room series, setting up makeshift spaces in friends’ homes in different cities when not in Los Angeles. But the studio is overall malleable yet contiguous. It brings everything together.

What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Start with the photographs. Look at the picture and the physical print or object and describe what’s there.

Photos by Tyler William Parker for SIXTY Hotels

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