In The Studio

Paul Mpagi Sepuya in conversation with Sevyn Zimmer
Photography: Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya is an American contemporary artist known for his photography, which focuses on identity, representation, and intimacy, particularly emphasising queer and Black experiences. Through mirrors and fragmented imagery, Sepuya explores the dynamics between the photographer, subject, and viewer, seeking to disrupt established power structures and reshape the viewer’s interaction with the images themselves. His art has been exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

Following the exclusive artworks presented by Paul Mpagi Sepuya for DUST, we asked him to invite a friend for an in-depth conversation about his artistic journey. Joining him is Sevyn Zimmer, a DJ and musician known for curating the LA party Serenity Link and blending glitchy European techno with industrial beats. In this dialogue, they explore intertwining their identities with their art while advocating for artist biographies that focus on their creative work rather than fetishising their queerness or ethnicity. They acknowledge the unique challenges they face as queer individuals compared to straight, white, cisgender male artists, but they also highlight a nuanced perspective on privilege and victimhood, celebrating the transformation of adversity into beauty. The conversation begins by addressing the theme of this issue—Victory—and then delves into discussions on identity, nudity, and vitality.

Studio (0X5A9534), 2021.

Sevyn ZIMMER – First off, how do you define victory? I guess, like, you personally. What does it even mean to you?

Paul Mpagi Sepuya – I don’t think I’ve ever thought of the word victory in connection to myself or anything I’ve ever done. Maybe the closest thing I can associate with victory, which doesn’t feel so absolute, is having confidence in the decisions made to tackle everyday challenges, plan for the future and navigate relationships. It’s a concept that can be intriguing yet challenging, as it often implies prevailing over someone or something, ignoring objections or opposition. It’s like the emphasis on victory overshadows everything else in its way.

S.Z. – I prefer to see it as something that benefits our community and the people we work with, and it becomes a shared accomplishment. As our practice progresses and things grow, the number of victories also grows. It’s not just about personal success but about uplifting those around us. I believe that, as I succeed, my friends and family also experience progress. This success is not limited to financial wealth but extends to having the freedom to pursue our passions, go where we want, and love who we choose. It’s about collective prosperity and the positive impact on those in our circle. That is what victory feels like to me.

P.M.S. – That’s true. It is becoming a rising tide that lifts all the boats. I’m embracing this. But I am considering the cultural perspective, which has taught us that when one person succeeds or achieves success, another has to be left behind. We are brought up to believe there’s little room, as if only one or two of us can take up that space. Especially regarding race, gender and sexuality—we often find ourselves in predominantly straight, white or cisgender environments, where being one of the few is the norm. In my undergrad years, I felt threatened not as much by straight white people but by another Black or queer person, especially in those earlier situations when diversity was not as prevalent. I would consider it a victory to navigate those spaces and be the sole representative, only to realise later that the true threat did not come from others like me but rather from the idea that there could only be one winner. It’s a harmful lie we’ve been fed. That’s why what you’re saying is so powerful and beautiful. When one person or community succeeds, it opens up opportunities for others. It’s about expanding the possibilities and creating victories that benefit everyone.

S.Z. – Absolutely. Changing our cultural perspectives and moving away from a competitive mindset is crucial. When we think of renowned figures in the art world celebrated as individual geniuses, the fact that they have a network of people around them is almost overlooked. When I reflect on my practice, I realise how many people have helped me get to where I am now, and it’s crucial to me to recognise and appreciate every single person who has contributed to my journey. Are we here solely to uplift ourselves, or are we here to uplift others as well? As you said, this is particularly pertinent when navigating straight, predominantly white and cisgender spaces. How do we even manage to get a foot in the door? Success doesn’t just happen overnight, especially for people like us. It’s a journey that requires immense effort and resilience.

P.M.S. – I’m thinking about the longevity and resurgence of artists like Beverly Glenn Copeland. It is truly remarkable. Beverly Glenn Copeland is a trans musician, songwriter and singer who created beautiful albums in the 70s and 80s but went under the radar. However, our generation, along with a new wave of listeners, has discovered the incredible music that had been there all along. It’s like stumbling upon a relevant, contemporary, yet timeless voice. I recall hearing Beverly Glenn Copeland’s work through a friend who worked in the record industry years ago. It was a transformative experience. And now, seeing a whole new generation discovering and rediscovering that work is awe-inspiring. It’s incredible to witness artists like Wu Tsang collaborating with Beverly Glenn Copeland on amazing projects like the one presented at the Guggenheim Museum.

When we consider Beverly Glenn Copeland’s career, starting in the 1970s as a Black queer folk singer, it must feel like such a victory to have finally been recognised and celebrated to such a level 50 years later, in his 80s. He was forging a path for all of us, creating a world, a community, a language and a space for future generations. His journey is such a testament.

S.Z. – It’s not just about opening up opportunities for the queer community and artists but about creating a new awareness. When an artist like Wu Tsang brings such work to a broader public, it’s like shouting from a mountaintop: “Hey, we exist! We’re here, and we’re making a difference.”

P.M.S. – Totally. Since we brought up the topic of visibility, I’m compelled to go deeper into the notion of hyper-visibility. How do you feel about the visibility of bodies in visual art for promotional reasons? It’s interesting because, right now, conservative politicians in the US are actively working to erase queer and trans people from history. Yet, we’re now in a media climate that seems eager to consume and promote queer bodies, especially those of colour. What do we make of this contradiction of hyper-visibility? I wonder about the meaning of creating figurative work that relies so heavily on social space.

S.Z. – It’s frustrating how people try to profit off of one’s appearance. Let me tell you, for me, it’s challenging to transition while being part of the music scene publicly. People always observe and comment on my body, even if I’m not promoting it. It’s been a burden for me because I want to be known for my music first and foremost. I don’t want people to assume they know me or talk about me based on my appearance or background. It can get overwhelming to deal with so much visibility, so I try to focus on my music and create meaningful work I feel comfortable with. As someone who’s still in the process of transitioning, I’m not where I want to be yet. I look up to artists like Arca and SOPHIE, rest in peace, who transitioned into the public eye, and I see how people always have something to say. It’s terrifying, not because I care about their opinions, but because of the impact it can have. With the news and the government threatening our access to hormones and healthcare, life is tough enough for people like us. I can’t dwell on what’s not being given to me every day. 

Yes, I’ll fight for my rights, but I must focus on my path, community, and survival. Visibility means nothing unless accompanied by tangible support: money, hormones, a helping hand or financial assistance. It may sound harsh, but what we need are jobs and healthcare. Not just visibility.

P.M.S. – Totally.

Daylight Studio (0X5A2273), 2022.

S.Z. – I recently expressed to a friend that I no longer identify as strictly male or female. I yearn to transcend societal expectations and exist without drawing attention. The truth is, I’ve grown weary of the constant focus on my trans identity. Having to discuss where I stand or clarify my journey is exhausting. When collaborating with others, I am sometimes introduced as ‘this trans artist’ or ‘this trans musician’. It leaves me longing to be recognised primarily as an artist or musician. Similarly, I’ve witnessed instances where your work, Paul, is overshadowed by an emphasis on your ethnicity, such as being labelled as a ‘prominent Black male artist’ without due recognition of your artistry and the process behind it. It’s disheartening to realise that some people hire us based on surface-level aspects, disregarding the depth of our work and the experiences that have shaped us.

P.M.S. – It’s frustrating. The blurred lines between personal experiences with art and feeling entitled to personal access to the artist. In the realms of music and visual arts, where people have profound and intimate encounters with the work, this paradox becomes even more challenging. While art brings people together and shapes spaces, it doesn’t mean they automatically have access to the artist’s personal life. It’s a common misconception that intimate artwork translates to personal intimacy with the creator. I often find myself clarifying boundaries, especially with my work in photography. If there isn’t an existing connection or friendship, it doesn’t grant them access to participate or assume a sense of familiarity. Personal boundaries are essential, and upholding them, even within art, is crucial. There’s a delicate balance between the public presentation of art and maintaining an intimate, private space. But yes, as you were saying, it frustrates me when a gallery press release focuses on an artist’s biography, such as their identity as a queer, trans, Black artist, before even describing their work, as if that is going to hold all the meaning and make their work legitimate or illegitimate. It’s just unfair and reductive.

S.Z. – Do they also do that with straight people?

P.M.S. – No, but I’ll tell you something. I got into trouble two years ago, around the spring of 2020. It was when the George Floyd incident happened, and we were in lockdown. As a teacher, I often have students who have to explain their work, and I noticed that there was a tendency for people to turn to me as a Black person, expecting me to have all the answers. But I realised that issues like racism, xenophobia and transphobia are not the problems of Black people or marginalised communities. They are the problems of straight, white nationalist individuals. It’s exhausting to see that when acts of violence occur, the victims are often subjected to hyper-visibility. So, I challenged my students, white and straight individuals, to include the words ‘white’ and ‘straight’ in their artist biographies. It was a way for them to confront their identities and the privilege they may have never been asked to acknowledge.

S.Z. – Well done. Both privilege and victimhood have so many nuances that need to be addressed. For instance, when I encounter other transitioning trans girls and we discuss our journeys and progress, we often end up complaining about the challenges of being trans in the music industry, the struggle to attain visibility, or the misrepresentation we face in the media. While I understand these sentiments, I don’t want to identify as a victim in my professional environment constantly. Each individual’s experience is unique, and I can only speak for myself. But this is where our community plays a crucial role. How can we transform our victimisation experiences into opportunities for support and funding rather than perpetuating a constant negative outlook? It’s already depressing to witness how the media distorts our narratives.

P.M.S. – Moreover, there’s an issue with the constant focus on victimhood.

While it’s important to acknowledge the struggles and complexities tied to discrimination, limited access to healthcare and other genuine challenges, it becomes problematic when our entire sense of self and identity revolves around being perpetual victims or being permanently harmed.

If we rely on those experiences to define ourselves, we inadvertently create a cycle where we need ongoing victimisation to maintain our sense of self.

S.Z. – I understand that breaking free from that mindset is challenging, especially when many have experienced discrimination and adversity early on. It can create a deep connection with others who share similar struggles. However, it’s important to recognise that this shared experience can sometimes become toxic.

P.M.S. – It is our most remarkable talent to turn suffering and injustice into beauty. We should be focusing on that.

S.Z. – Indeed. And tell me about yourself. Do you have any work being shown at the moment?

P.M.S. – There are two upcoming shows at Galerie Peter Kilchmann, one opening on June 3rd in Paris and the other on June 10th in Zurich. The shows will feature a collection of new work, some related to the pictures I’ve shown you before. The artwork has been created in my studio over the past year or two, incorporating new elements specific to each show. Interestingly, there are floral still-life images, particularly the vibrant red ones, which are a new addition to my repertoire. If you’d like, we can discuss one or two specific pictures that caught your attention.

S.Z. – Honestly, I hate to be that girl. But, well, that penis grabbed my attention. Let’s talk about that one.

P.M.S. – Good pick—Craig would love to be talked about. He’s always asking me if his cock is going to be in a picture that I’m including in a show.

S.Z. – I have to say, I’ve always appreciated the nudity in your work and the way that, honestly, you look at your work. A photograph like this just doesn’t really happen naturally. Someone might look at this and immediately think it’s pornographic or pay-for-play, but your unique perspective challenges the conventional norms associated with explicit imagery. Do you ever experience nervousness when showcasing photographs like these, especially considering their unconventional approach to nudity? How do people typically react when they see your work in person during gallery openings? Are you ever concerned about how viewers will perceive and accept your work?

P.M.S. – I feel fortunate that in my current situation, when I’m in the presence of my work being displayed, people have already embraced and accepted it. However, I recall instances from a dozen years ago when I witnessed people questioning why my work was being showcased and expressing confusion about its purpose. As for the nudity aspect, I had a significant experience after a breakup in late 2016. I had attempted to be in a monogamous relationship that was consistently threatened by the fact that my friends and acquaintances, including former partners, were always in and out of my life. This created an environment where my work posed a threat to that relationship. I must admit that I wasn’t approaching it from the most honest standpoint during that time. But, after that breakup and just before I started dating the person I was with in 2017, I reached a point where I thought to myself: “You know what? I want to push the boundaries of my work, exploring how I navigate social, romantic, and sexual situations.” I aimed to capture moments of genuine intimacy rather than staged scenes.

Many photographers excel at creating highly-charged erotic images through staging, like in editorial work where poses are planned. However, capturing the unfolding of a genuine moment can be incredibly challenging as it leaves little room for overthinking.

S.Z. – What about this picture?

P.M.S. – Here the subjects are two close friends who have known each other since they were young. They approached me and expressed their interest in taking these photographs, so we created a space in the studio where they could play and be themselves. This aspect becomes interesting when it comes to race and gender. Sometimes photographs alone cannot accurately convey a person’s gender or race, especially in fragmented images. I noticed instances where people were misidentified racially or misgendered when they lacked social recognition or connection to the subjects in the work. To address this topic, I intentionally avoided titling the works with my friends’ names. Regarding the upcoming show in Paris, my mom—who went to Paris for her 70th birthday last year with her friends—has decided to join me this time. 

She also attended my previous show in Los Angeles and has seen this kind of work before. I feel fortunate that she is open-minded and supportive; she has never expressed disbelief or discomfort about me exhibiting such work. If my mom is okay with it, then who cares? We’re all OK with it. So, yes, my mom will see ‘Craig’s Boner’.

S.Z. – How did you meet Craig?

P.M.S. – We met through a hookup—which I find cute—and then we became friends. These connections and interactions happened in various ways, from mutual friends to dating apps to chance encounters at galleries or parties. Except for Craig, whom we’re discussing here, I already knew the other people in the photos. I used to photograph strangers before, but they were never interested in the end result. On the other hand, Craig was enthusiastic about being photographed and sharing the images with the world. Given this portfolio’s intimate nature, I always like to check in and respect everyone involved.

S.Z. – Sharing personal experiences and creating art together can form deep connections with others. I had a recent encounter with someone during a time of transition in my life, and what started as a musical collaboration eventually turned into a romantic relationship. However, things became complicated, and we had a falling out. They recently contacted me, asking for a copy of a song we had created together. It made me feel conflicted because, even though the track is great, it holds personal significance, and I didn’t want to share it with anyone else. Vulnerability and personal investment are involved in creating art—whether photography or music. It’s an expression of who we are. But once it’s out there, it becomes public property, no longer exclusively ours. It can be emotionally challenging to release something deeply personal, but it can also be a beautiful and transformative experience. In a way, it’s a journey of letting go and embracing the fact that once it’s shared, it belongs to the world. It’s a process of closure and moving forward, almost like a victory in reclaiming our experiences and allowing them to have their lives beyond us.

P.M.S. – A victory indeed.

Mirror (_DSF1266), 2023.

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Io Capitano

Text by Luca Pacilio

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Paul Mpagi Sepuya in conversation with Sevyn Zimmer