Daria Harper (ART SY) reviews the work of U.S. artist of Trinidadian heritage Devan Shimoyama. In an earlier article, an interview with Kavi Gupta for studio international, Shimoyama explains, “Being of Trinidadian descent, I felt really interested in how many immigrants identify with their homelands in such specific ways, and when queerness intersects those identities, it causes many people to leave their families and homelands for safety or acceptance.” Here are excerpts from Harper’s review:
Devan Shimoyama constructs worlds of mythology and fantasy that refuse to accept the monolithic narratives of Black trauma and despair. His shimmering and multi-layered characters are painted against fluorescent, Day-Glo backgrounds and are often embellished with pop-cultural ephemera like books, jewelry, or clothing that Shimoyama frequently collages directly onto his immersive canvases. In his 2019 painting Evening Reader, the central figure, rendered in oil and colored pencil, is positioned comfortably on a couch with a glittery lamp shining behind him as he focuses on the book in his hands—a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His eyes are made of jewels and his lips are cut out from a glossy magazine. The painting is a self-portrait of the artist.
In a recent interview, Shimoyama explained the importance of subverting images of Black violence and tragedy that are so often highlighted and glorified. “In my work in general, I’m always striving to maintain that I do not depict negative representations of Black bodies or any kind of Black bodies in pain,” he said. “Those images can be triggering and we often see those things cycling through social media. I think of my work as a reprieve from a lot of that.”
A Philadelphia native, Shimoyama grew up surrounded by a family of creatives; his mother studied fashion design and his grandfather continues to work as a musician. As a child, he played the violin and began taking art classes at an early age when his mother noticed his love for drawing. Shimoyama ended up studying drawing and painting at Penn State, and went on to receive his MFA from Yale in 2014; since then, the artist’s career has been on a steady ascent.
In 2018, the Andy Warhol Museum presented Shimoyama’s first solo museum exhibition, “Devan Shimoyama: Cry, Baby.” The show highlighted Shimoyama’s large-scale paintings exploring Black boyhood and masculinity, along with his work in sculpture and photography. Prior to the Warhol Museum show, Shimoyama’s work had been featured in solo and group exhibitions at De Buck Gallery, Kavi Gupta Gallery, and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Regularly working in self-portraiture, Shimoyama’s work is deeply personal. His practice is a testament to how creating work from an introspective and specific place allows its impact to be felt universally. “In all the mythological-looking paintings, I’m using my own body, almost as a surrogate, to explore a multitude of other bodies that identify similarly to me,” said Shimoyama. “It’s sort of like using my body as a kind of archetypal character, through which I explore those narratives. I’m kind of constructing my own invented mythology of the queer Black male.”
The other figures in Shimoyama’s paintings, often friends or acquaintances, stare out with a penetrating gaze and eyes made of beads or jewelry. His distinctive use of sequins, glitter, and cloth translate into a glamorous and playful look and feel, drawing inspiration from a range of seemingly disparate worlds—from drag culture to Black women dressed in their Sunday bests. “I’m looking at the way that people construct a new kind of powerful image of themselves using these synthetic materials,” he said.
An integral part of Shimoyama’s masterful creation of fantasy worlds are his settings. One of his best-known series features paintings of individual men at the barbershop. Historically, the barbershop has served as a complex space for many Black people, and especially Black men. An environment that simultaneously fosters community, fellowship, and hypermasculinity, the space can sometimes perpetuate intolerance against those who don’t conform to typical standards of Black masculinity. Inspired in part by artist Kerry James Marshall—whose 1993 work De Style depicts a classic scene of men in a barbershop—Shimoyama uses the setting as a site of personal exploration around Black male identity.
When he initially started working on this series, Shimoyama hoped to go into different barbershops and have direct but subtle conversations with people about their experiences with Black masculinity. However, he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. “I had hoped to talk to them about intersectionality and all of these nuances in masculinity and Black masculinity, specifically. How it’s not so accepting towards queer or feminine-presenting individuals,” Shimoyama said. “Unfortunately, I did not feel welcome enough or comfortable enough in those spaces to engage in that dialogue myself.” [. . .]
[. . .] His paintings unveil how fantasy is far from frivolous or disconnected from our daily lives. In manifesting these waking dreams, Shimoyama’s self-portraits and representations of other members of the Black queer community challenge viewers to think and see beyond the oppressive conditions before them, into a world of infinite possibilities.