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Issue 242

Paul Mpagi Sepuya Lays Bare the Workings of the Studio

A new exhibition in Nottingham reveals the often unseen aspects of the photographic process

BY Reuben Esien in Exhibition Reviews | 15 FEB 24

A hand peeks from the upper-left corner of a photograph, holding a dusty black backdrop; at its centre sits a camera on a tripod. The arresting Daylight Studio Mirror (0X5A1511) (2021) is one of many works containing the apparatus of their making in ‘Exposure’, the first UK institutional exhibition of Los Angeles-based artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya. The piece is an apt starting point for a show that continuously reveals what is usually unseen in the photographic process: the detritus and scenery of the artist’s studio, his image-making factory.  

Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Dark Room Studio Mirror (0X5A3797), 2022, archival pigment print. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Paris.

References to European and West African art traditions pervade the exhibition’s two galleries, the first of which contains 28 prints focused primarily on still-life arrangements. At times, Sepuya’s bare and slightly sterile workspace appears reflected in the photographs. In other instances, however, various objects – props, even – enter the frame: a Roman Savonarola armchair, a Persian rug, a Ghanaian Bolga fan, sienna-coloured cushions, antique plinths and mirrors. The second gallery focuses on the artist’s creative and queer communities featuring models, friends and lovers in his studio. Here, ‘mirror flats’ (archive prints mounted on Dibond and attached to thick-wheeled wooden frames) evoke the feel of theatrical scenery and bring the larger photos off the wall and into the middle of the space. In works such as Model Study (0X5A7453) (2021), for instance, Sepuya’s subjects enact classical gestures that allude to Western art history, though references to historical West African art appear here, too: in the background of Daylight Studio Mirror (_DSF1266) (2023), I notice a photo of a bronze Ife head (1200–1400 CE).  

Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Studio Mirror (_DSF6207), 2023, archival pigment print on dibond on wheeled wooden frame. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Paris.

Sepuya’s practice seemingly inserts itself into a lineage of self-reflective portraiture – including Diego Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas (1656) and Jeff Wall’s photograph Picture for Women (1979) – in which the artists and their instruments appear within the scenes they’re creating. Sepuya’s works seem to subvert Susan Sontag’s description in On Photography (1977) of the dominance of the shooter over their subject and the camera as ‘a predatory weapon’. By turning the camera upon itself (and upon himself), to lay bare the workings of the studio, he appears as much at risk as his sitters from what Sontag described as the ‘camera/gun’.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Dark Room Model Study (0X5A1728), 2021, dye sublimation print on aluminum in artist’s frame. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Paris.

By maintaining the illusion that the lens has agency, Sepuya imbues his photographs with a sense of danger. This atmosphere of foreboding is explicit in the series ‘Darkroom Studio’ (2021–ongoing), where prolonged exposure shots catch Sepuya and his subjects skulking nude in seductive crimson light. The danger of the camera adds to the lustiness of the images, evoking the exploitative histories of the casting couch or, even, the snuff film. This eroticism also places Sepuya’s work in a lineage of gay male figurative photographers – such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe – whose often-titillating work now forms a tradition of its own.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Model Study (0X5A7453), 2021 Archival pigment print. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Paris.

Like any act of exposure, the show is an affront. The mechanics of a camera and a tripod in front of a dusty backdrop are things I would prefer to avoid seeing. Yet, as Sepuya reveals and presents them, I confront my assumptions about what a studio photograph must or should do. Sepuya’s work is interested in the history of the regard and the fraught terrain of representation. At times, it is challenging and threatening not only to the artist but also to the spectator – I, too, am implicated. As the artist confronts himself, the photographs invite me to do the same, with a probing camera lens pointing in my direction. 

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s ‘Exposure’ is at Nottingham Contemporary until 5 May

Main image: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Daylight Studio Mirror (_DSF1266), 2023, archival pigment print on dibond on wheeled wooden frame. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Paris.

Reuben Esien is a writer based in London, UK.

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