Through his portraiture, Paul Mpagi Sepuya invites viewers to consider the construction of subjectivity, both in photography and in ourselves. He challenges the history of photography and deconstructs traditional portraiture by way of collage, layering, fragmentation, mirror imagery, and the perspective of the black, queer gaze. Covering multiple periods of Sepuya’s life and career—his first major museum survey—the exhibition reveals a profound intimacy between artist and sitters and reflects personal relationships over the years. Sepuya allows glimpses of the studio setting and the photographic apparatus, including tripods, backdrops, lighting, camera, lenses, and the photographer himself. Although little is hidden, much is obscured and fragmented, with narratives left to conjecture. All his compositions are constructed analog, with no digital manipulation. What you see is what is there. In contrast to the slick artifice of traditional portraiture, Sepuya suggests the human element of picture taking—fingerprints, smudges, dust on the surface of mirrors. Working in a medium that rejects touch—don’t touch the lens, the print, the photograph—he makes photography tactile.
The artist’s first monograph will be published by CAM for this exhibition, featuring contributions by Grace Wales Bonner, fashion designer; Malik Gaines, writer, performer, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; Lucy Gallun, associate curator of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Ariel Goldberg, novelist, poet, and essayist; and Evan Moffitt, writer, critic, and associate editor of Frieze.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya is organized for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis by Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Chief Curator, with Misa Jeffereis, Assistant Curator.
The exhibition tours to Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston (Oct 19, 2019–Mar 14, 2020).