How Paul Mpagi Sepuya Reframes the Queer Gaze

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Paul Mpagi Sepuya has developed his art practice by exploring nuances beneath the surface. His images—often studies of the nude body—are layered in allusion and meaning. What Sepuya elects to show is equally as telling as what he does not. Adeptly playing with boundaries, he conceals and reveals intimacy through artistic mirrors, drapes, and objects. The photographer fragments parts of his subjects, collaging them into pieces of many selves.

Sepuya’s works of friends, lovers, and even his own presence reveal the open, fluid dynamics of relationships and artistry. “Personal experience is important to acknowledge as a starting point but making work has to go much further,” he tells CR. “My work isn’t narrative, but there are those who know how to read it.”

Sensual and erotic at first glance, Sepuya’s art is a complex vision of photographer, subject, and ultimately, audience. His process is staged front and center with visible tripods, studio space, and editing gestures laid readily bare in a larger conversation about photography itself. “I would like [the audience] to see, plainly, what a photograph is and what the camera as an apparatus does,” says Sepuya. In this dynamic wonderland, there are always multiple views within his gaze.

Sepuya has long held a passion for the art medium. Born in San Bernardino, California in 1982, his early start in photography was encouraged by his mother, who also took an interest in the form. He went on to study the craft at New York University with graduate studies at UCLA. In the decades since, his photos have enraptured audiences, gracing editorials and art books, as well as being exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the 2019 Whitney Biennial.

Through his practice, Sepuya has been known for following the spirit of his artwork. The questions of each of his series oft lead into new paths of exploration and imagery. His pictorial bodies such as “Studio Work” and “Darkroom Mirror” incorporate fragments in a myriad of forms from cut ups of photo prints to fragments re-envisioned in wholly new contexts and images. “Fragmentation is a social comment in as much as it’s able to contend with the material artifacts of image-making, the unaccounted and unanticipated surplus of photography and how those fragments contend with, modify and themselves transformed by the social/intimate world of relationships in which they’re grounded,” explains the artist.

Far beyond their formal considerations, the images are driven by underpinning conceptual ideas. “Representation matters and representation is a problem. My agenda has never been empowerment, or the idea of creating positivist images towards an agenda of acceptance,” says Sepuya. “I’m interested in insisting that queerness and the possibilities a queer position affords, lies crucially at the center of photography. That photography cannot exist without queerness and blackness.”

The artist’s vantage speaks volumes for the nature of photography—what we are shown, what that means, and how representation signifies in a larger milieu. Sepuya’s practice is incredibly relevant for both the art form and the contemporary cultural moment. His understanding and skill within the medium results in exceptional images. It is his soulful embrace of all identities that makes his photos truly beautiful.

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