Paul Mpagi Sepuya on resisting "forced productivity" during the pandemic

"I didn’t go to my studio for four months."

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: advice on creating a routine when no two days are alike.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya (b. 1982)

Sepuya is a Los Angeles–based artist working in photography, whose projects, in his words, “weave together histories and possibilities of portraiture, queer and homoerotic networks of production and collaboration, and the material and conceptual potential of blackness at the heart of the medium.” His work has appeared in group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, the Getty Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Modern Art, among several other institutions, and he’s had solo exhibitions at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis—which, with Aperture, recently published the monograph Paul Mpagi Sepuyaand galleries in London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Sepuya is also an acting associate professor in the visual arts program at UC San Diego, and—full disclosure—he’s a friend and genuinely one of the sweetest and most generous people I know. Last month, over email, he told me a bit about his current routine and why he’s not worrying about making artwork during the pandemic.

Mirror Study (0X5A4203), 2019, 50 x 75 inches. All images courtesy of the artist, Document, Chicago, and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Where and with whom are you riding out the pandemic?

I’ve been at home in Los Angeles with my partner. We officially moved in together this month after three and half, or so, years. It was inevitable I suppose, and I bought a house about two years ago so it’s been nice to have the space.

What are you working on these days?

I wouldn’t know where to begin! The Fall Quarter has started at UCSD so I’m in the midst of teaching online, doing my best for the undergrads and grad students. At my studio there are always half a dozen projects happening. I’ve been making actual collages, organizing archival material. Since August my part-time studio manager has been back, we’ve found a good safe setup with our computers spaced a bit further apart, and sometimes staggering our times in the studio. He is a savior.

I’ve been hearing from so many writers and artists who are really struggling to create new work with everything going on right now. Can you relate, and have you figured out any strategies for keeping your work flowing during these bizarre and distressing times?

Oh absolutely not! I actually resented all of the forced productivity, or focus on what artists are making during quarantine. I was happy to not make work. I didn’t want to, and it made no sense to me to be forced to process something in a moment when everything was unknown. I didn’t go to my studio for four months. I played around with a few things around the house, made a few so-so pictures, but I put my energy into pulling weeds in the yard and learning native CA plant gardening.

A conversation around pictures (0XA5A2615), 2019, 50 x 75 inches

What does your typical day look like right now? Is this a big departure from your pre-Covid routine?

I don’t drive to San Diego twice a week, which I don’t miss. I don’t have three or four days going to the rock climbing gym with friends, which I miss terribly. The biggest impact has been socially. I miss a good messy party.

Do you normally have any rituals or superstitions that you rely on for getting your work done?

I don’t have rituals or superstitions around work but I have rituals just to get through the day—I begin by cleaning the kitchen and end by straightening up before sleep.

What have you been doing to relax and recharge these days?

Gardening. Long walks and bike rides.

Untitled (2020-053), 2020, 11 x 14 inches

Finally, have you read, watched, or listened to anything amazing lately that you can recommend?

I’ve been reading so many good books, here are a few: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, NK Jemisin’s The City We Became, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Color Critique. I lost track of time but think I was finishing the NK Jemisin Broken Earth Trilogy when quarantine began… but not sure.

I’m about to finish rewatching Lost, it’s only taken me two months and there are so many episodes, it’s quite the binge. But very entertaining even when it becomes ridiculous. Before that we watched I May Destroy You and I rewatched Watchmen because my partner hadn’t seen it. They’re both so damn good. For a few weeks we had a thing watching Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett films— bouncing around from Notes on a Scandal to Elizabeth to Bond films and the like. Next I’m planning to rewatch Six Feet Under and Getting On.

Once I begin a series I have to finish it. I’m committed.

Installation view: A conversation a̶b̶o̶u̶t̶ around pictures, Vielmetter Los Angeles, 2020. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

For more of Sepuya’s work, check out his website, his Instagram, or his recent monograph, Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

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Here’s an excellent new initiative: Periplus, a collective of 50 established writers seeking to mentor promising BIPOC writers in a variety of genres. As they write, “We’re a collective of writers who want to, and are able to, make ourselves available. We like the idea of a low-key, informal, mutual-aid-style project that exists outside of institutions.” Potential mentees can apply online by December 15th or read more in the Periplus FAQ.


In last week’s advice column, I fielded a question from a writer and multiple sclerosis patient who craves routine but whose days are unpredictable. I also created a discussion thread where readers can leave their own suggestions—and I’ve been genuinely inspired by all the thoughtful replies, which have touched on the magic of 45-min work sessions, the importance of removing energy-sucking activities from your life, and how habit stacking can act like “a delightful ritual cake.”

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