Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Drop Scene (installation view), 2020; Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE; Photo: Colin Conces.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Drop Scene (part of Intimate Actions)

Bemis Center

December 10, 2020 through April 24, 2021

By JONATHAN OROZCO, January 2021 

JONATHAN OROZCO: Could you talk about the smudges present in the work? I know these smudges come from a photographed mirror, but could you explain their purpose and function?

PAUL MPAGI SEPUYA: The works in the exhibition are almost all made photographing reflections in my studio. Simply put, when you see a camera you are seeing the camera that made the photograph. There is no “staging” so-to-speak. In 2014 I began using mirrors as a surface onto which I could arrange materials - test prints, cutouts, ephemera - and photograph. I wanted to be formally incorporated into looking and, if I chose to, in the final picture. I could take it myself or set the camera on timer or cable release. What seemed obvious to me was not so to my grad school classmates and other viewers. The mirror became invisible and the images were seen as digital constructions. So to the smudges… the process of affixing and collaging material on its surface, or standing against it, or whatever else I am doing in the studio leads to it getting smudged with fingerprints, residue from tape, etc. To keep the surface visible I stopped cleaning it. It could no longer disappear. Every aspect of the work announces itself.

JO: These photographs aren't staged. Could you talk more about this? Why is the viewer's ability to see the camera important?

PMS: What I mean by that they are not staged is that any handling of a camera or device is happening for the purpose of making the picture. Either the photograph you see reflexively or a photograph you may not be privileged to see, being shot by a camera held by one of the subjects depicted.

You do not see the camera in every work, only in most of those made photographing the mirror’s reflection. It’s variable.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Drop Scene (installation view), 2020; Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE; Photo: Colin Conces.

JO: Your practice is collaborative, and it is seen in your photographs through the people captured in the images, and those who are credited in their creation. What sort of collaborations are happening in Drop Scene?

PMS: Two different kinds of working side-by-side are happening in playful ways, being photographer and becoming model, handing the roles back and forth. The photographs in the exhibition aren’t themselves collaborative but they come from a collaborative, entangled process of friendship, flirtation, image-making. In Darkroom Mirror, Giancarlo makes his own photographs alongside me as his body is leaning against mine. His behind-the-scene black and white 35mm photographs were later shown in the Whitney Biennial presentation, but we don’t see them here. In Figure and other “iPhone” pictures we see Jerome, Yasir and Victor also snapping behind-the-scenes pictures on their cellphones which, in the case of Figure, reveal on their screens in miniature aspects of the studio which cannot be seen in my work. They also direct me at times in their own compositions and images which are totally theirs.

JO: There's also a strong intersection between race and queerness, but it's depicted in a tender way. Why are these facets important to you, and emphasized in the photographs?

PMS: Race is present terms of black bodies, black material in drapery, bodies of color, white bodies. In this work we are all gay or queer. These conditions are taken as a given, enjoyed and played with as you say in a tender way. But I do not describe or ascribe other meaning.

JO: Could you also explain the formalist approach within the works, like using a black curtain to obscure as a device?

PMS: This is about black material. Blackness, whether bodies or curtains, is required for the surface of the mirror to reveal itself. Blackness then is a required component of viewing and constructing photographs. I said in the previous question I am not trying to ascribe meaning per se but assert that blackness is at the center of the medium. The drapery of black velvet is very connected to the photographer’s studio as a 19th century prop and device for creating illusion of a floating subject or dressing up scenery or making more serious a nude. WM


Jonathan Orozco

Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.

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