To challenge our perceptions of queer relationships, artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya depicts intimate fragments of reality - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

To challenge our perceptions of queer relationships, artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya depicts intimate fragments of reality


We strive to revisit many of our protagonists and check in on their new creative endeavours. Six years on, we followed up with artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya to see how his body of work has evolved.

The art of Paul Mpagi Sepuya is personal; shifting between portraiture and self-portraiture, it is about his life, and the people that pass through it. Intimate, emotional, and sensual, the now L.A.-based photographer’s work reflects a notion of constant negotiation—negotiations between himself as the artist, his subjects, and the viewer.

Varying between simple portraits, sometimes nude, and experiential collages that either portray the artist, one or more of his subjects or combine all three, the results feature carefully crafted fragments that rarely depict entire bodies. By draping fabrics, shooting against mirrors, layering extracts of older works, Sepuya experiments within the confines of his studio, whose function he sees as an important element of his practice. Years into his career, Sepuya’s photographs remain deliberately provocative: the homoerotic images depict intimacy as an exploration of human relationships—all of Sepuya’s subjects are friends, intimates, and muses.

These studies of figures, grounds or other objects that enable the artist to create imaginative records of society will be featured in various US exhibitions this year.

Darkroom (_MG_9233), 2016
Mirror Study (4R2A0857), 2016
  • What have you been up to recently and how has your work generally developed over the years?

    I have been trying to spend as much time in my studio as possible, it takes a lot of loose time and attempts and failure to work things out. I am teaching part time, doing a lot of visiting artist lectures and studio visits with students, which I enjoy as well.

    If anything I hope the new work is getting more explicit, and more honest. And playful.

  • Can you describe the relationship to your recent subjects? Are your personal and professional lives still as intertwined?

    Yes, nothing has changed. I can’t work with models or strangers. Portraiture and mutual investment on my part and that of my friends is necessary for the work.

  • You once referred to queerness as a way that opens up many ways of looking at relationships. How do you define your work today?

    It’s not and cannot be about defining anything, proscribing or styling. To be honest, my work is pretty much just “gay” in terms of content. It is homoerotic and homosocial. But it has formal elements and the questions asked are very queer.

  • How would you describe the raising interest in queer art and its meaning to the contemporary art world?

    Raising interest is a trend, but queerness is essentially human and will go on. Hopefully we artists working in these themes connect to the larger world of ideas, the fundamental histories of the medium. That’s why I am interested in its embeddedness in the operations of photography, whether or not a queer or black subject is “visible” in an expected way. Queerness is everywhere, blackness is everywhere, and this explosion of work should change how we look at all art going forward, because a trend for a type of representation will come and go.

Devin, 2008
Figure Ground Study (_Q5A2086), 2016
Mirror Study (4R2A0884), 2016
A Portrait (0X5A0946), 2017
Darkroom Mirror Portrait (_2050021), 2017
A Sitting for Matthew (_R2A9192), 2015

This year, Sepuya takes part in a number of group exhibitions, among them Being: New Photography at New York’s MoMA and Haptic Tactics at the Leslie Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. From April 14, Chicago’s Document Gallery will dedicate a solo exhibition to his recent works. For more information about Sepuya, read about our visit to his home here or visit his website.

Text: Ann-Christin Schubert
Photography: Courtesy the Artist, Yancey Richardson Gallery, Team Gallery and Document Gallery.