Review of “Paul Mpagi Sepuya”: ‘between desired object and desiring subject’.

AiW Guest: Stacey Kennedy.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya forms an intriguing monograph which surveys Sepuya’s complex and provocative visual language as he explores the potential of blackness and desire in the space of the ‘dark room’. Sepuya’s portrait photography, described by the artist as ‘queer modernism’, disrupts the conventions of traditional studio portraiture, to become a site of homoerotic social relations: a space where the roles of artist and subject are constructed and contested. The book exposes Sepuya’s play with artifice and performance as it outlines the development of his visual practice, cataloguing how he uses his own body, and those of his intimate circle of friends and lovers, in ways which challenge notions of power and authorship. Deeply connected with the written word, he found in texts and literature a way to make sense of this ‘gap of language between desired object and desiring subject’ (p.14), the very gap in which his practice is located.

It is a sign of his career success that this book forms the first monograph about the young American artist and sits alongside a major solo show surveying ten years of his practice, presented by the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis (2019). As Sepuya’s portraits reveal his subjects in fragments: the book stitches together essays by scholars and curators interspersed with contributions from his sitters, which reveal in a more personal way, the thematic and conceptual connections across his creative output, with pieces by Grace Wales Bonner, fashion designer; Malik Gaines, writer, performer, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; Lucy Gallun, associate curator of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Ariel Goldberg, novelist, poet, and essayist; and Evan Moffitt, writer, critic, and associate editor of Frieze.

Sepuya was awarded his MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles (2016) and today his work sits in the collections of MoMA; Whitney and Guggenheim Museums; The Studio Museum (Harlem); and The Getty Museum, among others. His work has been included in high profile exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial (2019) and Being: New Photography 2018 at MoMA. In 2020 he had a solo exhibition at Modern Art in London and his work was included in the ‘Masculinities’ exhibition at the Barbican. Prior to this arrival on the main stage of the art world, Sepuya spent many years distributing his photographs through zines and small-scale publications. Initially his Brooklyn bedroom served as the studio for his portraiture work, an intimate setting from which sprung images bursting with creative and sensual possibility. As these were circulated within homoerotic art and fanzine culture—disseminated through the digital global networks of Friendster, myspace, Facebook and Instagram—Sepuya’s audience became his social circle.

Self Portrait Holding Joshua’s Hand, 2006

The monograph reveals that viewer became sitter and often friend or lover, as there was slippage between ‘desired object and desiring subject’ which muddled the roles of artist and participant. Sepuya states that ‘regardless of the nature of our connection, the photographs would depict them as if they were, could be, or had been a lover. I wanted that kind of desire to be the foundation, to go all the way and then negotiate back’ (p.12). This creates a tension in Sepuya’s early portraiture, which reflects this struggle to reconcile his position as participant, but also architect of the queer world portrayed. In Self Portrait Holding Joshua’s Hand (2006), Sepuya takes the hand of an unseen and unknown ‘Joshua’: a pose which suggests love and trust. Sepuya’s bare chest and confrontational gaze signals there is more to the relationship than platonic friendship and that he is unafraid to mark this.

The monograph traces this unfaltering presence of Sepuya in his work, from depiction of his complete physical form towards the inclusion of the camera as a conceptual and visual stand in for his presence. Throughout, Sepuya declares the right to depict himself strictly on his own terms. The assertion of visual ownership of one’s image connects Sepuya to the tradition of claiming self, as queer people of colour have historically had little control over their own image.  As the artist Thomas Allen Harris stated in a 1994 interview: ‘Historically, the black literary tradition of autobiography as self-creation and self-fashioning has been a necessary and radical act’ (as quoted in “Black Widow: A Conversation” with Lyle Ashton Harris, in The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, edited by Deborah Bright, p.249). In this regard Sepuya’s work sits alongside other queer black photographers, such as South African photographer Zanele Muholi who archives the queer community and centres their own body repeatedly to re-capture and re-contextualise their own image. The monograph succeeds in celebrating Sepuya’s confident declaration of self as he explores his identity and sexuality using conceptual strategies which engage his own physicality and form, crucially broadening the heteronormative and racialised focus of the traditional art canon.

Figure (_2010037), 2017

For Sepuya, the studio is central to this ‘performance of portraiture […] where these representations are constructed’ (quoted in Studio Work, 2012). Even as he relocated out of his Brooklyn bedroom as workspace, he retained the sense of intimacy and closeness with his subjects, admired in great studio photographers. His work interrogates the history of studio portraiture as a medium to reflect the complex and incomplete nature of visual representation, recasting the very space, idea and presence of the studio. Sepuya’s work centres the studio as the formal site in which narratives are constructed and reinterpreted, the site where truth and representation fight for visibility. Sitting within this longer history of studio-based practice, Sepuya’s work captures the energy and confidence of a particular time, centralising the nude within the intimate studio setting to portray the struggle to live the truth of a black, queer male identity. This is a bold yet fragile moment: Sepuya makes a radical statement in bringing black, queer desire into the formal, academic and often biased world of studio practice and his work mirrors, in a most literal way, those subjectivities which are currently being advanced through mainstream platforms that attempt to change prejudiced attitudes relating to gender, race and sexuality.

Darkroom Mirror (_2060999), 2017

Our attention is drawn to the inherent fragility within Sepuya’s artistic confidence in particular in Mirror Studies, an unflinchingly honest, direct and kaleidoscopic collection of work. Figure (_2010037) (2017) makes use of the mirror to distort, fragment and abstract the body. The subject is reduced to body parts, fingerprints and smudged surfaces which suggest the presence of unknown relationships or encounters, a visual and literary trick that enables queer artists and writers to depict men who desired other men, even when those other men were, on the surface, merely themselves (p. 22). Dark Room, Sepuya’s most recent body of work makes graphic analogy between the photographer’s darkroom and the spaces of queer socialisation and sexuality. Darkroom Mirror (_2060999) (2017) centres a physical camera in front of a confusingly aligned backdrop of knotted bodies: light and dark skin tones; rough and smooth torsos; decorated (the hint of a tattoo, a necklace) or undecorated. Between these aesthetic binaries the viewer reads the black, male body and its queer possibility. Three hands steady the camera in the centre of the shot like a tripod, whose challenging eye returns the voyeuristic gaze back on the viewer. Once again, this device collapses the distance between image making and image maker, implicating the observer within the creative process to foreground the role of desire as a productive and critical force.

For those familiar with his work, Paul Mpagi Sepuya presents fresh perspectives on his past and recent photography: equally the book is a useful entry point for those new to his practice, or for those interested in creative work by members of the African diaspora who portray the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. Paul Mpagi Sepuya is an important contribution, which succeeds in recording the development of an artist who is unafraid to unpack black male sexuality in the US today through intense, urgent yet also playful photographic imagery. Same-sex relationships remain illegal in thirty-four African countries, and within the global African diaspora queer black communities are disproportionately affected by HIV, AIDS, violence and stigma. Refusing any victim identity, Sepuya creates an intimate archive of queer lives, which documents his own sense of beauty, joy, and self-determination, as well as the individuals in his social world.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, STUDIO WORK (Franklin Artworks, 2011) (cover). Via Aperture.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a Los Angeles–based artist. His work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum, and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, among other institutions. Notable recent exhibitions include a solo survey exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, a solo exhibition at Amsterdam’s Foam museum in 2018, the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and Being: New Photography 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art (Aperture).

Stacey Kennedy is a PhD candidate in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research focuses on women’s agency in the African contemporary art world, specifically exploring Nigerian art networks. The project is AHRC-funded through M4C doctoral training partnership. Twitter @stakkkiii. Instagram @contemporary_african_art.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya is published by Aperture – see for availability and more here:

Paul Mpagi Sepuya presents the work of one of the most prominent, up-and-coming photographers working today. Sepuya primarily makes studio photographs of friends, artists, collaborators, and himself, inviting viewers to consider the construction of subjectivity. He challenges and deconstructs traditional portraiture by way of collage, layering, fragmentation, mirror imagery, and the perspective of a black, queer gaze. In contrast to the slick artifice of contemporary portraiture, Sepuya suggests the human element of picture taking—fingerprints, smudges, dust on the surface of mirrors. He also allows glimpses into the studio setting—including tripods, backdrops, lenses, and the photographer himself—encouraging multivalent narrative reads of each image. For Sepuya, photography is a tactile and communal enterprise. Although the creation of artist books has been a long-standing part of his practice, Paul Mpagi Sepuya is the first publication of his work to be released widely, copublished with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on the occasion of a major solo exhibition.

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