Evidence of Accumulation Exhibition Catalogue: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, by AA Bronson

Sunday, May 15, 2011, 11:33am: It is a grey moody kind of day here at Fire Island Pines, and I am having trouble writing this essay, which has been percolating in my mind now for several weeks. I am sitting in my shorts and a sweater, trying to pretend it is warmer than it is, and I have promised myself that if I write the introduction at least, then I will take a break and plant some geraniums in two cast-iron planters outdoors. I have chosen geraniums because they seem to thrive on neglect; hopefully this essay too will benefit from my procrastination.

Saturday, May 26, 2011, 1:13pm: It is hot, muggy and sunny here at Fire Island. Paul has emailed me to ask which works I will mention in this essay, and I realize that I do not even know what is a work and what is an element in a work, or what maybe once was a work but now has been discarded, or rephotographed, and wrapped back into a larger work, an installation of photographs on a table for example, with a plant, and a heap of books, including “xxx” by xxx. And if Paul himself then enters the picture, and begins to rearrange the elements, is that then a new work, perhaps even a performance? And is a self-portrait of that process yet another work again? How about if this work, this photograph of Paul naked (or not) rearranging a previous arrangement of photos of friends, becomes part of a subsequent scenario: a friend arrives, and, removing his clothes, places himself naked on the floor in front of this photo, is that a work too?  And how will these be placed in the gallery for the exhibition that this essay accompanies? Will Paul reproduce an arrangement from his studio and call that a work? And what if a friend of Paul, perhaps someone already in one of the photos, were to arrive at the Studio Museum, even at the opening itself, and discard his clothes, and lie naked (or even partially clothed) in the midst of the installation, would that be another work yet again? I think it would.

Paul’s work is deceptively simple: he takes photos of his friends. He indulges in portraiture, but not quite as one imagines: he documents communities, his own community, and by documenting forms them. A community is not a community until it is seen as a community, until it sees itself as a community. It is the representation of community that brings community into consciousness, into existence. So Paul’s process of creation is more than a creation of images, or of installations; I will go further and say that Paul’s art also exists in the creation of community. In this sense he falls within a long line of queer artists and writers whose place in community was an important part of how they were and what they produced in the world. People like Frank O’Hara lived and loved in community, and their creative output was an outpouring of the heart and mind, flowing into the outer world from the stream, the river, the ocean of their desires, their love, their friends, their community.

I think of Frank O’Hara first because he was one of many queer artists and writers who spent time right here in Fire Island Pines, and formed the culture and the heritage that exists still today. Frank O’Hara, drunk one night (one imagines), fell asleep on the beach, not far from here, where I sit typing now, was run over by a truck, and died. It is his death, and the knowledge of his death, that marks this place as a place of queer community. I once visited Ron Vawter, the brilliant founding actor of the Wooster Group, as queer as they come, and we swam together naked in a swimming pool at the house he had rented for the summer. He had come to live his final days in this beautiful queer place, to take his place in this queer history, and he did. He died soon afterward. I remember coming here in the summer of 1993, with Jorge of General Idea, and renting a tiny house that I can practically see from where I sit now, surrounded by trees and the very tame wild deer that populate the place. When we woke up in the morning we would hear the hoofs of the deer trotting around on the deck that wrapped all four sides of our diminutive house. When Jorge left, that September, the real estate agent, Bob Howard, arranged for him to be driven to the ferry dock in an emergency vehicle, because he was too weak to walk. He died a few months later. This place is wrapped in queer history, the woods are thick with spirit life, with the presence of the queer spirits that are, together with the living, our own special community.

I hope that Paul will forgive me for this long tangential diversion. But I think it is no accident that the arrangements of friends that have populated his studio at the Studio Museum for the past months have resembled momento mori. As queer people, we are always aware of the dead and of the living, as shared experience gone by, as memory but also as presence.

The particular queer histories that form the invisible armature of Paul’s work are, of course, somewhat different, a little more at a remove: the “shared lovers and stories among Isherwood, Capote, Vidal, Beaton…. Beaton and Tchelichew and Charles Henri Ford, G. Stein, Sam Stewart, David Leddick’s gossipy book Intimate Companions about Platt Lynes, Lincoln Kerstein, Paul and Fidelma Cadmus… etc. Van Vechten and Richard Bruce Nugent. Beaton meets Woolf, Woolf and Vita(!!) Sackville-West, Vita and Violet Trefusis, Vita to Harold Nicholson, Violet and Colette…”[1]

When I first began thinking about writing this text, I thought about Paul’s many portraits of attractive young white men, of the way in which he seems to objectify white men (and some men of color) the way that black men themselves so often are objectified, even fetishized, by white men. But I soon abandoned this approach. In Paul’s photographs, nakedness is intimacy, an intimacy declared by the sitter between himself and the photographer. His body language is relaxed, caught in a moment between one comment and another: the photographer, this human being Paul Mpagi Sepuya, is always present in the photo.

Paul’s work, that is to say his process of working, is as fluid as life itself, as the flowing running river of relationship that joins us in this community that Paul depicts. We are naked under his gaze; he reads us like books; his is the sweet spirit of love that weaves us into the spreading community of his attention.

[1] From an email from Paul Mpagi Sepuya to AA Bronson, May 17, 2011.


AA Bronson

Published in the exhibition catalogue, “Evidence of Accumulation,” Summer 2011

Studio Museum in Harlem