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Paul Sepuya reflects on A Yearning That Floats
in conversation with Albert Shyong
A Yearning That Floats is a new photographic series by American artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya for A Magazine Curated By Grace Wales Bonner. The delicate portraits and self-portraits offer a meditative study on the body, through a subtle homoerotic gaze and the extensive use of mirrors, the tripod, and other tropes of studio photography. Composed as new graphic collages, works of Burkinabe and Malian photographers Sanlé Sory, Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta are taped up on walls and mirrors, opening a dialogue between West Africa and Los Angeles through time and space. Dressed in Wales Bonner’s SS2022 collection Volta Jazz, Sepuya references a sense of legacy born in the 1970s carried through to the modern day.
Photographed in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, Sepuya’s studio consists of an eclectic mix of Maharam fabrics and pillows, wooden boxes, and mirrors. With the back wall draped in black velvet, the set is reminiscent of darkrooms standing in contrast to the subjects’ poses, rejecting any overt sense of sexual overture. A Yearning That Floats offers a lights-on glimpse of the body in a state of tranquility and self-reflection, exploring elements of queer culture at the intersection of the African diaspora.
Albert Shyong A Yearning That Floats is largely anchored by the mirror in capturing self-portraits. While the mirror is traditionally conceived to reflect the face, almost the entire series consists of faces that are hidden or angled away.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya If when making a photograph one has to look through the viewfinder or at the camera’s screen, one’s face will be obscured. Everything that appears is happening in the work, and so it follows that many times the face will be obscured. More interestingly perhaps, the photographs made in the reflection of a mirror re-emphasise point perspective. Every photograph is in itself aligning the viewer’s gaze with that of the camera, which may or may not be that of the operator/artist. Whether or not the face is visible, the structure of looking is there.
AS The male body, as a focal point of the series, is explored through nudity and skin. Could you contextualise this gaze within your practice?
PS In 2005 when I began making portraits within the context of new friendships, relationships, and the formation of a gay/queer social space I wanted to be honest about centring desire as the core of the work. Regardless of the distinction between platonic or romantic relationships, I decided to photograph everyone as if they were a lover. This was a project called Beloved Object and Amorous Subject. Since then, intimacy has remained at the core of the work as projects have grown and changed conceptually, materially, spatially and performatively. Fast forward to more recent work under the Dark Room series – made mainly within my studio featuring portraiture, reflection, studio observations, abstractions and collage – they formally and conceptually play off of the queer/homoerotic dark room. The space behind the curtain and in front of the mirror. A site of social, sexual and communal gathering. Desire leads. This is an oblique way of talking about skin, as you asked, but I felt it necessary to explain the context for nudity.
But on to skin, when working in the mirror I realised that there was beauty in the accidental observation that the smudges on the mirror’s surface, traces left from portraits, my own hand, working in the studio, were only made visible when reflecting black. Could be black velvet, a Black body, my body, black objects, black material.
AS With the chosen photographs by Sanlé Sory on the mirror, there is a beautiful contrast between the lively scenes of the Burkinabe underground and the peaceful, almost meditative self-portraits.
PS We actually produced quite a few images that weren’t in the final selection for publication that made use of that inspiring energy. In contrast to the more quiet, formal images in the final portfolio are some lively, playful and spontaneous group photographs made with Bradley and Jerome who appear alongside me in the work. This final edit though becomes as you describe, an interesting contrast. Looking at the overlap of formal elements in the studio – what carries over between West Africa and Los Angeles, between the 1970s and 2021.
AS In this overlap there is a sense of Black diasporic exchange between time and space transmitted by these mirror photos of the last century. Did you feel it amplified through the portraiture and the clothing from Wales Bonner’s collection Volta Jazz?
PS Bringing the research and inspiration to the surface amplified those connections that already existed. We have inherited the legacy captured in those original photographs in our style, our family albums, the images we create and share with the world, the way we move and the way we speak and sing. Clothing, specifically Grace’s collection in this sense, accompanied by movement and song is a powerful force for embodying that exchange between time and space.
Grace’s work, her clothing but also her references, research and the thoughtfulness, care and precision she places in each item, every collection is an inspiration. I am a huge fan of her work and feel lucky to call her a friend.
The complete series A Yearning That Floats features inside A MAGAZINE CURATED BY GRACE WALES BONNER
Photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Movement Director and Model Jerome A. Bwire, Model Bradley Bradshaw, Studio Manager Nico Dregni, Textiles courtesy of Maharam
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