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Paul Mpagi Sepuya
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July 10, 2024
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Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Identity and Intimacy Through the Lens

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work captivates with his fragmented compositions challenging traditional portraiture by incorporating the studio, his camera, mirrors, and himself. This approach initiates a dialogue about queer identity, sexuality, desire, and longing, making his art both abstract and deeply personal.

Sepuya’s artistic journey is influenced by his experiences in Los Angeles and New York City, where the environments shaped his work. His portraits reflect friendships and relationships formed in these unique social structures. Early studio experiences in LA, where he accumulated unfinished materials, test prints, and personal items, led to the evolving collages that characterize his style.

Sepuya's work is influenced by literature, particularly the writings of queer modernist authors such as Richard Bruce Nugent, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote. He draws inspiration from their exploration of identity and self-understanding. Sepuya only photographs people he knows and these close relationships are reflected in his portraits, which capture specific moments in the studio and continue to build on his previous works.

In an era dominated by selfie culture, Sepuya’s work stands out by capturing less yet revealing more. His portraits, often using backdrops and drapery, explore the gap between visible and hidden spaces, inviting viewers to engage with the complexities of his images. His collage-like compositions explore the language of a photographer’s darkroom, a space where work is developed in darkness and must be carefully negotiated in the light. This metaphor extends to non-white and queer spaces where social encounters often occur in hidden, marginalized environments. Fragments and traces, like fingerprints on mirrors, evoke fleeting glimpses and connections that define queer experiences.

The presence of the camera in Sepuya’s images adds honesty and uncanniness. By placing the camera at the center, he ensures his photographs are transparent about their construction. The visible traces and smudges on mirrors enhance this raw, minimalist aesthetic. His choice to strip down his subjects to simple, timeless attire allows their essence to emerge naturally. 

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s art offers a compelling glimpse into his intricate, queer world. Through fragmented compositions, literary influences, and deep exploration of identity and desire, Sepuya redefines contemporary portraiture and selfie culture.

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