Questions With Artists

Reflections from an Artist-in-Residence Program Alumnus

Paul Mpagi Sepuya

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  • Paul Mpagi Sepuya
    Studio, 2014
    Courtesy the artist

  • Paul Mpagi Sepuya
    Darren, 2011
    Courtesy the artist

  • Paul Mpagi Sepuya
    Looking at Alex, 2014
    Courtesy the artist

As an intern in the Curatorial department at The Studio Museum in Harlem, I have the opportunity to explore how the Museum functions behind the scenes. At work, it is exciting to observe how our curators harness the power that exhibitions and their surrounding discourse possess in order to activate art as a social and political tool. Selecting artists and framing their work in relation to broader thematic concerns is one of a curator’s primary responsibilities, and I am especially interested in the long-term relationships between our curators and the artists. The Artist-in-Residence program at the Studio Museum, founded in 1968, provides an excellent example of the close working relationships between curators and creators. One of my projects at the Museum is to manage a database of information concerning AIR alumni. While compiling their contact information, I became curious about the identities, interests and personalities of these people who are integral to the Museum’s history. Thus, I decided to reach out to AIR alumni to ask them about their time in residency at the Studio Museum, and their current practices.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, the first artist I interviewed, is a photographer from California who was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum from 2010 to 2011. His naturalistic photographs capture friends, male nudes and life in the studio. Sepuya’s images make viewers feel as if they intimately know his subjects, and provide an honest look at his process, especially his interest in the relationship between archives and photography. In his portraits, the subjects’ comfortable eye contact and postures demonstrate the deeply personal intrigue that the artist himself experiences and can generate in viewers. Often Sepuya arranges and re-photographs his prints, collaging two-dimensional works with the objects and people around him. This gesture depicts the artist’s studio as a site where life and art intersect.

Currently, Sepuya is an MFA candidate in UCLA’s Photography program. Let’s see what he has to say about his time as an AIR and his latest work!

Liz Lorenz: To refresh our readership, where are you from, and where were you living before your residency at the Studio Museum? What were your first impressions of Harlem?

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: I was living in New York since 2000, and in Brooklyn since early 2002, where I stayed until last summer 2014. Though I had never lived uptown, I had friends in Harlem, or would go up to see exhibitions at the Museum, for delicious dining, and to visit the parks. It seems like such a long time ago that I hardly remember my “first” impressions of Harlem in 2000 or 2001, but I remember loving the architecture and history, and then being envious of the beautiful and spacious apartments of my friends there.

LL: How did your practice evolve during your 2010–11 residency? Do you think the atmosphere or energy of Harlem and its people affected your thought processes or style?

PMS: The AIR program was an amazing chance for me to bring several then-developing idea strains together in my work: those of portraiture, photography’s relationship to studio practice, and the studio as a social space. Harlem gave me an exciting destination every day and became a special part of my life. Considering that I make portraits of friends, the shift from making work in my home or theirs to the Studio Museum became a fun adventure, a new space to negotiate. It was nice to introduce many friends to Harlem and the Museum and spend time there together.  I did not quote Harlem directly, but it became the energy that propelled the project from beginning to end. And I enjoyed discovering more of Harlem each week together in that way.

LL: How did having the chance to exhibit at a museum that focuses on contemporary artists of African descent affect your career in terms of public exposure and personal growth?

PMS: The [AIR] exhibition and its reception was the aspect of the program that I was most curious about. My work does not directly address race or ethnicity, and even though it’s primarily situated in a queer social space, it’s not about that either. I wanted to know how the context of the Museum could shift the perception, reveal gaps or blind spots, and strengthen and deepen the content within my work when viewed through that identity and the history of the Museum and Harlem. There is a lot of tension there…

That project itself, called STUDIO WORK, was bracketed by the duration of the residency, and the exhibition came in the middle of it. I’m still not completely sure how the public received the work in the exhibition, and to be truthful, it did not receive a positive public review at the time. I’m proud that it was completed and that what grew out of it has had a way to travel to several additional solo and group exhibitions, most recently at Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. The idea that the raw material and pictures generated in the residency would be re-opened and reworked for each instance of exhibition—and at each stop along the way—has been a revelatory process.

LL: Describe your latest work. How has it changed since your residency? What is a key political, cultural or personal issue that you are currently exploring in your art?

PMS: It took about a year to process. Maybe more. I had hoped that the year at the Studio Museum would solve questions for me about my work, its context and content. Like I said before, much was revealed in time, but I realized that those revelations were actually questions. Questions more carefully articulated than I ever would have been able to ask before. And that was a huge plus.
I decided I needed more time to think, to study. More focused critique and conversation. I took the questions from the Studio Museum and am now able to apply them here at UCLA.

The key issues I’m exploring in my work are the archival impulse in photography, how intimacy as an artistic drive can function within a social landscape numbed with “over-sharing,” and how my own artistic production intersects with these trends. Formally, I’m continuing to explore the studio as an intersectional site, [along with] the historical and contemporary ideas that have privileged the artist’s studio as unencumbered by social conventions.

LL: How do you envision the viewer’s experience of your artwork? What is the primary aspect or idea that you want your audience to carry with them into the world?

PMS: I want the viewer to look and look again, and find something that piques them, and then ask a question. I hope for a curiosity and a desire in the viewer to continue with me on wherever art making takes us.