Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Exposure | Nottingham Contemporary

I have never seen cushions depicted so lovingly. A gorgeous golden colour, picked out by sunlight, they’re piled voluptuously on Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Los Angeles studio floor. Given that this US-based photographer only works within his studio, you can view them again and again across this exhibition, his first UK monograph show.

The artist tends to frame his photos in his studio mirror, exposing his camera lens, reflected in the glass. He either takes sharply-focused photos during the day, or pleasingly blurry, long-exposure red-and-black photos at night. Other exposures include that of Sepuya himself and his friends, who sometimes appear in the works. When they do, they’re generally naked, hardbodied and beautiful. Over time (works from 2016 to 2023 are included in the Nottingham show), there’s an increased emphasis on things over people, though.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya ‘Daylight Studio (DSCF0043)’ (2021) Daylight Studio (DSCF0043) 2021. Image source: Galerie Peter Kilchmann

And what things! The artist has accumulated quite a collection: as well as those luxurious orange velvet cushions, there’s a beautiful classical-style pedestal, ornate wooden stools, and a lovely fan, among other objects. In one particularly revealing work, the artist, fully clothed this time, lovingly polishes some silverware.

The show notes encourage us to reflect on how the “radicalised bodies” in the photos, generally men of colour, reverently described as members of “queer and creative communities”, link to “Europe’s colonial exploits”.

They didn’t encourage such reflections for me, mainly because the bodies on show were all so hot. The artist’s un-radical eye for beauty - once in people, now in things - drowns out any worthy political message, if any such message is even intended at this point.

As I walked around the Nottingham galleries, I framed this show within another I featured last week, from another black artist with a taste for luxury - Danielle McKinney. Her painted women, in their gowns, smoking their cigarettes, seemed so much more slyly provocative and suggestive than Sepuya’s hot naked guys.

But it’s the beauty of the latter artist’s works - of all those reflections, in smudgy mirrors and camera lenses - that is going to enable him to buy a great many more beautiful things in future. Who wouldn’t want such lovely cushions, after all?

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Exposure is at Nottingham Contemporary (Nottingham). 27 January - 05 May 2024