Cyshimi does not need a huge canvas to say a lot – in fact, all they need is a nail bed. As a transdisciplinary artist based in Brazil, they view nails as “performative sculptures” – an opportunity to speak on ancestry, beauty and identity. In this interview, they discuss the empowering nature of using the nail as a medium, as well as the exploration of culture and gender in art.
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First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, for readers who don’t know about your work?
I’m Cyshimi. I’m Chinese and Taiwanese Brazilian and I’m also non-binary. My pronouns are she/they and in my work, I explore issues of ancestry, identity, beauty and body through performance, digital art and nail sculptures.
A huge part of your artwork is nail sculptures. How did you get into making nail sculptures and nail art in general?
I’ve always had a strong relationship with vanity since I was a teenager from clothes, cosmetics and beauty YouTubers. All of that followed me along to construct my identity with a twist to get me outside of the norms. Since that time, I started to grow my natural nails really really long. I found it incredible how our body could grow something naturally so fantastic, and mainly, how I felt with them – more powerful and unique. I was also really drawn to how people would interact with me when they saw I had nails, I would start whole relationships from that. Be their reaction positive or negative, that estrangement was the starting point for some people to question some things inside themselves.
As a transdisciplinary artist, I identified how nails are a medium that navigates and reunites many concepts and mediums I have run into before. Nails carry a big baggage of identity, empowerment and social issues, which are subjects that were always present in my work. It also combines sculpting and painting techniques to fit and live with bodies, which, in my research, turn them into a performative sculpture.
You’ve created some very elaborate sculptures. How do you make something so complex on something as small as a nail bed? What does the process look like?
From sculpting in ceramic and in 3D to drawing, I see that being a transdisciplinary artist shapes my process from start to finish, I try looking at references apart from nails. Nature, extraordinary or common objects and narratives are some of the things that inspire my work.
One thing very few people understand is how hard and time-consuming it is to sculpt in miniature scales because it is much more intricate and requires a lot of attention to detail. Usually, the whole set of sculptures can take days or up to weeks to produce, from researching, sketching, testing materials and finally producing the nail set itself. It is so incredible how many ideas can emerge from the little space of a nail plate. Experimenting with a variety of materials outside of nail products is what makes it more original and what surprises me and gets me so excited when creating nails, is that a lot of the results are unexpected.
“Nails carry a big baggage of identity, empowerment and social issues.”
While nails can be connected to the same hand, the nails themselves can be seen as quite separate from each other. How do you explore the individuality of each nail while still creating one coherent, larger image?
I think this habit comes from the fact that everything started with natural long nails. Natural nails are raw so they can usually be really different from each other, the shapes and curvature, and also how it looks when one of them breaks and the others stay the same.
I also think it's cool when we try different possibilities inside a world, constructing each character in each nail to result in a surreal mood in the whole nail set.
Let’s talk about some of your works in greater detail. Your piece, Treasure Knots, showcases historical Chinese culture through Chinese knots and ceramics. As a Sino Brazilian artist, do you feel a sense of responsibility to represent your heritage in your work? How do you handle that?
I think it first comes out more as a need and then later on a responsibility to continue with this legacy. Here in Brazil, as I was getting to be an artist, I also got involved with Asian activism in 2016, and so both of these things really merged, and heritage started to be present in my early artworks. It’s important to say how new and trailblazing having that movement in Brazil was – in contrast to the United States where you have seen movements and content being produced about Asian Americans for decades; here in my country it was something no one was really doing before.
A lot of my most important art projects talk about this issue, but I feel that later on, the art market was kind of capturing this subject and I started to feel more pressured to talk about it. It's sometimes tricky to relate art with activism, and I understand now how I don’t owe anyone a responsibility to talk about it other than myself. Making art when feeling pressure from others can be dangerous. With all that in mind, Treasure Knots is the first work I did in two years that talked about heritage, now in my way and my will, with no pressure.
In Treasure Knots, you also play with time, combining antique elements with contemporary ones. While your Chinese heritage is deeply historical and traditional, you are a young artist living in the 21st century. How do you reconcile these two wildly different aspects in your work?
I feel that I’ve seen a lot of Asian artists present in the art space talking about their culture, but in a romanticised way that does not acknowledge all the social aspects around that. Doing that can easily become a fetishisation of their own heritage. Observing that, I think it’s important to talk about traditional things but bring them into a current context, decolonising the perspective of ancestry and also producing our own. While they are wildly different, they also complement each other well in that sense.
In Treasure Knots, while taking the reference of the classic postcard Fingernails of a Highclass Chinamen and the Chinese knots, I’m also bringing it into a new context through the digital image of sculptural ceramic nails, tying the knots of all of these elements in one piece.
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Photography by Gabriel Cupaiolo
In Emoji Flags, you explore the four very different aspects of your cultural identity – white, Chinese, Brazilian and Taiwanese. How do you navigate this diverse cultural identity in your art?
As an Asian and Latin American artist my art comes a lot from this background, building what we build in the countries that we live in has its own intricacy and uniqueness. Our movements and arts don't usually have the same opportunity in terms of highlight and exposure. It’s always important to remember that the concept of race isn’t fixed, so there are a variety of race relationships in different countries and none of them is the same. Personally, being so loud about my Chinese ancestry in Brazil has another value when we think that the biggest population of Asian people here is Japanese, and a lot of our Asian movements are unfortunately really Japanese-centred. So, bringing this culture to my work was also a way to bring light to these unspoken narratives.
Now, let’s talk about technology and art. You’re part of SuperRare, a crypto art marketplace. What made you decide to start minting your work as NFTs? More broadly, how has the rise of crypto art changed the way you approach your work and the opportunities that you have?
I think what first got me into NFTs was the idea that creators could get directly financially compensated for their art on a worldwide scale. I also found it fascinating how we can turn everything into a digital asset that could forever be on the blockchain, which is very precious when we think about archiving.
About my work, I always thought that the nail sculpture photograph, the whole art direction, lighting and composition was a piece itself, and now it can be seen and sold as an art piece. Because the space is still in construction and the artists have more autonomy, I feel like it’s an environment where I bring nails and it is respected and recognized as an art form. There’s an increasing beauty scene and a space for other mediums that didn’t have ways to be valued before. Also, there is a rupture in the existent ‘rules’ of the traditional art world in many ways, but one that gets my attention is how the space is community-driven and how we’re encouraged not only to be an artist but to collect from others and share our profits.
Your work was recently featured in Icons x SuperTrans, which was the first time an NFT marketplace has curated a physical gallery of only transgender and non-binary artists. How did it feel to be a part of something like this?
I feel immensely proud because I know how historic this is. Trans and queer people have historically been erased from the space but at the same time, we create the most innovative and groundbreaking art. So, it’s huge to see we are having a proper voice to build history and our community. This is only the beginning.
“It's sometimes tricky to relate art with activism, and I understand now how I don’t owe anyone a responsibility to talk about it other than myself. Making art when feeling pressure from others can be dangerous.”
Obviously, your identity doesn’t consist of only your cultural heritage or only your gender. What does intersectionality mean to you and how do you portray it in your work?
I feel like intersectionality is where all the potential is, nowadays things are not seen in separate boxes anymore. Concepts and materials flow and remixes and from here new things flourish.
Lastly, what kind of message do you want to convey with your art?
When I create, my main motivations are colours, textures and shapes that can transport you to a new surreal world and when they’re all combined, it creates a set of performative sculptures that can often question a hegemonic beauty standard.
A lot of my work seeks to reveal that historically, nails are a strong symbol of resistance, empowerment and identity throughout history and cultures. They defy normative concepts of beauty and ways of life, and by that, they generate a strong sense of community and collectivity. Also, I think it fits to say that my work is surreal and real at the same time – it’s about bodies, identities and a matter of reimagining the self.
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Treasure Knots
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Jungle Walker
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For Comme des Garçon
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Photography by Rogger Cordeiro
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Nina do Porte by MARVIN
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Photography by Pepigossip
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Melted Scorpion
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Fortune Castle