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Tandem CAM exhibitions give new meaning to the phrase in camera – “in privacy or secrecy.”

To the extent that art compels us to regard the world afresh, dual new exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis should make a visit there compulsory.

Those free exhibitions – “Paul Mpagi Sepuya” from its namesake and “Earwitness Theatre” from Lawrence Abu Hamdan – both opened at the museum on May 17. Both also will run there till Aug. 18.

“Paul Mpagi Sepuya” and “Earwitness Theatre” might well drastically assail the average visitor’s sensorium, albeit in dramatically divergent fashions.

The Sepuya exhibition, according to a press release from the museum, “explores race, sexuality and identity within intimate photographic portraits.” With his archival pigment prints, Sepuya, an Angeleno, has lately earned major ink – including a recent cover of Artforum International and coverage in The New Yorker – for works involving nudity and fragmentation, as well as cameras (almost necessarily in an era of selfies and societal voyeurism).

“With Paul Mpagi Sepuya, we embraced the opportunity to present the first museum survey of his work,” explains Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the museum’s chief curator. “Because he’s worked with many of the same sitters [subjects, that is] – friends, colleagues, collaborators – we get the chance to see the development of his craft and style, as well as his relationships, through time.”

The Sepuya exhibition, Al-Khudhairi says, involves 41 photographs and an installation. “The work covers 13 years of Paul’s career, 2005 to 2018,” she continues. “The largest photographs are 51 by 34 inches; the smallest, 13 by 9.”

Slated for publication at a later date to accompany that exhibition is a monograph, Sepuya’s first, presenting “multiple perspectives of his art – from critics, art historians,

To the extent that art compels us to regard the world afresh, dual new exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis should make a visit there compulsory.

Those free exhibitions – “Paul Mpagi Sepuya” from its namesake and “Earwitness Theatre” from Lawrence Abu Hamdan – both opened at the museum on May 17. Both also will run there till Aug. 18.

“Paul Mpagi Sepuya” and “Earwitness Theatre” might well drastically assail the average visitor’s sensorium, albeit in dramatically divergent fashions.

The Sepuya exhibition, according to a press release from the museum, “explores race, sexuality and identity within intimate photographic portraits.” With his archival pigment prints, Sepuya, an Angeleno, has lately earned major ink – including a recent cover of Artforum International and coverage in The New Yorker – for works involving nudity and fragmentation, as well as cameras (almost necessarily in an era of selfies and societal voyeurism).

“With Paul Mpagi Sepuya, we embraced the opportunity to present the first museum survey of his work,” explains Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the museum’s chief curator. “Because he’s worked with many of the same sitters [subjects, that is] – friends, colleagues, collaborators – we get the chance to see the development of his craft and style, as well as his relationships, through time.”

The Sepuya exhibition, Al-Khudhairi says, involves 41 photographs and an installation. “The work covers 13 years of Paul’s career, 2005 to 2018,” she continues. “The largest photographs are 51 by 34 inches; the smallest, 13 by 9.”

Slated for publication at a later date to accompany that exhibition is a monograph, Sepuya’s first, presenting “multiple perspectives of his art – from critics, art historians, the artist himself, as well as from many of the sitters who have been the subjects of his portraits over the years,” Al-Khudhairi notes.

She next addresses the degree to which Sepuya embraces focal and other ambiguities, and engages in a dialogue with contemporary society – nowadays awash in amateurish photographic exercises in narcissism (namely, selfies).

“I think every photographer must deal with the constant barrage of images in everyday life,” Al-Khudhairi says. “I think the fact that Paul works entirely analog, without any digital manipulation of the image, says something about his desire to make work that’s very present and very real. Also, there’s nothing quick about this work – it’s thoroughly constructed and considered.”

The Abu Hamdan exhibition, meanwhile, “investigates crimes that have been heard and not seen; exploring the processes of reconstruction, the complexity of memory and language as well as the urgency of human rights and advocacy,” according to the website of Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize. The Beirut-based artist, with just three others, was shortlisted for that honor on May 1; the announcement of the winner will come this December.

Abu Hamdan’s exhibition at the museum includes a medley of things at once quotidian and bizarre: a gray plastic children’s wading pool; tandem three-stepped wooden stairways, one half carpeted, the other not; a collection of footwear of diverse types.

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Al-Khudhairi has been tracking both Sepuya’s and Abu Hamdan’s works for some time and takes pride in both exhibitions. “‘Earwitness Theatre’ has received phenomenal responses critically and from audiences at both of its stops in London and Rotterdam,” she says. “After CAM, it moves on to Brisbane. We’re the only U.S. venue for the exhibition. He’s an artist that I think St. Louis will be fascinated with, as his work brings up many issues with regard to human rights, the politics of listening and of witness.”

Al-Khudhairi likewise reflects on the degree to which Abu Hamdan’s exhibition, with its concern for the aforementioned politics of listening, arrives at an ironic time, when no one seems to be attending to anyone else and once quite private telephone conversations blithely take place in quite public locations.

“A politics of listening does imply an antidote to the politics of shouting,” she says. “For Lawrence, he’s investigating how people’s rights are made silent, and he demonstrates how those rights may be heard.”

Further, Al-Khudhairi helpfully sketches what, exactly, constitutes the presentation of Abu Hamdan’s work as a “private ear” (a puckish phrase used in the official Turner Prize announcement).

“A soundproofed, darkened booth will contain the work Saydnaya (the missing 19db),” she says. “This is an intense sonic experience constructed of whispers, test tones and silences. Walled Unwalled is a video work that features the artist, and Earwitness Inventory is a collection of 92 objects that have been of use to Abu Hamdan in his acoustic investigations of human rights violations.”

When asked (with admitted impishness) whether Abu Hamdan or a proxy is recording the sounds of the exhibition itself, incidentally, Al-Khudhairi replies, simply, “No.”

She also succinctly explains the aesthetic congruences between the Sepuya and Abu Hamdan exhibitions, despite their dissimilar media: “I think both exhibitions are about taking those things that are obscured or hidden and making them more present to our senses.”

Otherwise, to an inquiry about what prior works (either at the museum or in other venues, here and elsewhere) the Abu Hamdan exhibition or the Sepuya might recall, Al-Khudhairi responds ironically, with almost gleeful showmanship. “These exhibitions are totally unique and original,” she says before adding, with a laugh, “Incomparable!”

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, 314-535-4660, camstl.org

Bryan A. Hollerbach serves as LN's copy editor and one of its staff writers. He loves to read, write, impersonate an amateur artist and research all things bibulous.