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Dark Room Model Study (0X5A1728), 2021. All images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich, Paris
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a pioneer of the early 2000s queer zine scene in New York, brings his portrait evolution to Midlands
Paul Mpagi Sepuya does not work in a vacuum. Instead he works in a continuous flow, each image an accumulation of motifs and techniques built over 25 years – though he is not always initially conscious of how. “It’s only in retrospect that one project ends and another begins,” he says. His solo shows are “the moments where it becomes opportune to formalise ideas, make meaning and test things out”.
It is a fact that Exposure, Sepuya’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, an experiment of sorts. An experiment in collaboration with curator Nicole Yip, who devised the show’s concept of the ‘double exposure’ – an idea playing both on the technical process of image-making and ‘exposure’ of the work to the public. And an experiment in transmission: to see how Sepuya’s references – to the East Coast queer scene, 19th-century daylight studios, the writings of Harlem Renaissance artist Richard Bruce Nugent – conspire and communicate in a distant environment.
“My work has shifted from thinking about portraiture as a definitive thing, and more rather like portraiture as an ongoing, underlying source for the work”
Exposure The exhibition includes 40 works, mainly from Daylight Studio / Dark Room StudioSepuya uses mirrors, red lights and props in her series to question studio portraiture’s dynamics. In 2017, Sepuya began a series that goes beyond the boundaries of a traditional photoshoot. It challenges the hierarchy, which puts the final image before the process, setup and relationship between artist, sitter and photographer. The show represents an evolution from casual domestic portraiture to something more self-referential, but without losing the intimacy of Sepuya’s early shoots. “My work has shifted from thinking about portraiture as a definitive thing, and more rather like portraiture as an ongoing, underlying source for the work,” he tells me. “It’s about the complications that are produced in the making of portraiture.”
Sepuya’s practice began at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he studied for a BFA in photography and imaging until 2004. New York was in turmoil during the early 2000s, following the 9/11 attacks. Artists were at forefront of the queer, cultural revivals. Sepuya mentions Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s 2022 documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom as “very much the place I was in New York” – a daring Williamsburg counterculture where people partied and marched together against the US’s wars in the Middle East.
Sepuya, who aspired to be a fashion photographer began photographing his friends in his apartment. He captured the intimacy of their social circle. Looking back, the pictures appear as domestic portraits, but not necessarily “the way a subject is revealed through not only figure but also an eye into their surroundings,” he explains. Since the subjects were not in their own homes, he was able to separate the person from the prop, and instead focus on the studio setup. “It took a while for me to realise what I had taken for granted – that I was photographing in my home, a place where I was already very comfortable,” Sepuya says. He would show the edge of the table or bed and blank walls, anticipating later manipulations and obscuring surfaces.
The queer scene gathered momentum and Sepuya’s portraits found a home in BUTT The magazine of his own SHOOT He published a zine in which he published one male portrait session per session, usually featuring nudes. “These portraits that I was just making for myself started to circulate in a way that I hadn’t anticipated through social media – they became quite notorious,” he explains. “I was thinking about the way in which portraiture is wrapped up in this economy of exchange and solicitation – particularly by gay men in homoerotic spaces.” AA Bronson founded NY Art Book Fair in 2006, giving the scene new exposure and expanding Sepuya’s list of friends and subjects. The period led to a new way of understanding visual culture. “How do images work in the world?” Sepuya wonders. “How do they circulate and transform relationships? How do they come back?”
If New York inspired the male posing and careful observation of bodily movements in Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio, The treatment of studios has nomadic origins. Sepuya turned the lens to his own and other friends’ portraits as they began portraiture around 2010. It was a way of creating a literal reflection. He mentions a Cecil Beaton photograph of Pavel Tchelitchew painting his muse Peter Watson with poet Charles Henri Ford also present – a conscious layering of friendship and artistry within the frame. Sepuya became interested in “recognition and the way that photography is positioned,” he explains. “The camera as a vector pointing outwards and allowing you to understand the position of the artist, the author, the photographer through those things that surround them.”
Sepuya’s residency at The Studio Museum, Harlem and the Center for Photography in Woodstock allowed him to collect props and explore rephotographing with images from correspondences with friends. During his MFA at UCLA, he learned to shoot digitally and began incorporating reflections into his compositions. This allowed him to incorporate images taken while traveling in Europe and Mexico. He fixed prints to mirrors, and punctured the boundaries of his studio.
You can also find out more about the following: Exposures, images feature mirrors littered with research material – “a studio space that could be both the recurring background for an image but also would slightly change over time,” Sepuya explains. Gold fabrics were essential for referencing Modernism, and black velvet was important to maintain the sexual gestures in mid-20th-century homoerotic photography. The combination of black fabric and mirrors “opened up new ways of thinking about the idea of Blackness in terms of material – and the necessity of Blackness for making latency visible,” he says.
Sepuya has shown extensively over the past 7 years. This is a form stress testing for images, in constant dialogue and conversation with their predecessors. In 2017, a small show at Team Bungalow in Los Angeles was the debut of his darkroom images. The following year, they were shown at Document in Chicago. Inclusion in MoMA’s Being: New Photography 2018, the 2019 Whitney Biennial and the Barbican Centre’s Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography (2020), confirmed his position within the new curatorial emphasis on queer reflection. Recent forerunners for Exposure were shows at Bortolami Gallery, NY; Vielmetter, LA; Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; and last year’s twin Peter Kilchmann display in Zurich and Paris. “Where the ideas come in is always responding to observing what happens once the work is made,” Sepuya explains. So viewers in Nottingham will engage in many kinds of spectatorship: with the artist, his subjects, the studios – and previous audience perceptions.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya ExposureNottingham Contemporary will be showing” until 05 May