Devan Shimoyama incorporates the influence and mysticism of card readings in his newest exhibition, Tell Me, currently on display at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) of Málaga. Until August 27th, you can view how Shimoyama explores gender identity, sexuality, and race through the deities, divinities, and religious aspects of cards. 
Portraits of important people in his life depicted as individuals of high social status and power show Shimoyama’s humbled approach to art and his humility as an artist. It is very clear how much of himself he puts into his art. You can find pieces of his life in every part of his works, from the tarot-influenced essences to the animals to the embellishments. With art that pulls from every aspect of Shimoyama’s skill set, there’s no wonder his exhibition is gaining traction – it was fate.
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Congratulations on your newest exhibition, Tell Me, currently on show at CAC Malaga (Spain). This collection is made up of the latest additions to your series Tarot, and it explores gender identity, sexuality, and race as well as self-portraits in the style of tarot cards. I’m curious, where do you see the crossover between all of these subjects?
I think the symbolism in the cards, as well as the characters featured in many of the standard or popular decks, tend to lean into particular divinities and references that are often rooted in the gender binary, however, some (such as the Thoth deck) include deities or other figures that can be read as quite ambiguous or androgynous.
I grew up Baptist Christian, and some of the imagery in the Rider Waite Smith and Marseille decks were familiar to me as they reminded me of imagery from the church murals, stained glass windows, and illustrated bibles I’d encountered in my youth. What’s interesting to me in that type of simplified imagery is that it’s often so dressed up that gender becomes more about knowing who that character is through other signifiers such as the colour they’re wearing or the patterns decorating them instead of the actual garment itself. Some ways gender can be determined is through a bird in the sky, even. Such abstract ideas on gender are exciting and peculiar.
As for race, I grew up in a predominately Black church, and certainly was not exposed to alternative divination practices until I became an adult and explored various cultures through research, travel, and friendships. Through a deeper investigation even into tarot, one can discover that the illustrations on the most popular deck in the world were done by a British Jamaican woman, Pamela Colman Smith. She was an artist and illustrated Jamaican fairytales and folklore as well. This led me to believe that perhaps my own Blackness was more apparent in the history of mysticism than I previously believed.
I’m sure you’ve done tons of tarot card readings in your time. Could you share any particular reading that heavily impacted you or that has stuck with you for a significant amount of time?
I’ve had a lot of types of readings done, not just tarot card ones. I am more interested in a confluence of readings as I believe the more approaches one can get, the more clearly one can determine what to take from it.
I had a reading that involved tarot, palm and graphology when I was 21 years old that I still have notes from to this day. It was from a psychic named Mister Dee, and he immediately upon seeing me, excitedly called me ‘Mister Unique!’ and went on to detail all the significant people in my life up until that point and then named six more that I would meet in the next decade, and gave me a very clear idea of how certain types of decisions I could make in some of these relationships could change the course of my life. I often referred back to those notes from time to time and found them incredibly useful.
You’re incorporating aspects of drag queen culture – glitter, sequins, gems, jewellery, and Swarovski stones. Not only this, but you embellish your paintings with these elements in unique ways – gems for eyes, glitter for hair, rhinestones for tears. How do you feel these choices elevate your pieces, while still grounding your message to viewers about gender identity, sexuality, and race?
I think these material choices help to embed the paintings with an inherent baseline relatability of creating a dazzling beautiful illusion in the same way that drag does on a performer’s body. It makes the paintings intrinsically queer, celebratory, and festive. All of which is significant to me and my development as a gay Black man.
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In your paintings, specifically in Tell Me, I noticed quite a few recurring animals – snakes, birds, dogs, cats. What is the significance of these animals, and how do you believe they go about adding to the overall intentions of the portraits?
A lot of the tarot illustrations I reference for the compositions of my tarot paintings include various animals. I like to think that the animals I reference in my paintings have somewhat of a personal relationship to me, such as the anime cats acting as familiars to me in the paintings titled La Force and Le Mat. The dogs in La Lune are representations of my dogs River and Bowie. This sprinkling in of the personal along with or in place of the symbolic I think adds specificity to the narrative of The Fool’s Journey. It takes that story and allows me to play with and manipulate it to discover new meanings.
Tell Me features self-portraits, but also portraits of other individuals in your life. Could you tell me a little about whom these special people are to you? What does it mean to have had the chance to depict them in your collection, and why did you decide to do so?
I like to think these works are much about self discovery, in the same way that a tarot reading might be for a person. Therefore, I have depicted myself as The Fool, going on a journey of growth and development. I therefore have included family members in the roles of the empress (my mother), the high priestess (my grandmother), and the hierophant (my grandfather). For me, these roles are significant in learning lessons from these individuals both in my actual life and in the narrative of the major arcana.
Devan, you are a very versatile artist, utilising both painting and photography as mediums. Moreover, you explore using collages to share a cohesive story through picturesque visuals. How do you find the balance between these forms of expression? And do you see any intersection between painting/collaging and photography or any ways in which one influences the other?
I have not used much photography in my practice, but it is something I use to get references for paintings, though it’s something I’d like to delve into more directly. I use collage for fabrics and usually just for small things in my paintings, but typically all the faces that are rendered are done in coloured pencil and oil paint, with the mouths often collaged on top. For me, collaging is so powerful because of its ability to be so direct and tactile. Its edges are often so sharp against one another, creating a very striking tension, but just through coexisting on a surface together they also force the viewer to make sense of the image as a whole, creating new meaning.
I have what I like to think of as a syntactic approach to painting in which I do have specific rules for how a material functions in my work, and therefore I have my own ‘world building’ that has been developing over the years. For me, this allows viewers to read the works and enter into this other world more easily.
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You were an Associate Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What have been some of the best moments teaching at a prestigious institution like Carnegie? And what are some of your favourite classes that you’ve taught?
I taught at CMU for nine years, and just made the decision to leave teaching and focus on my art practice full time. But teaching there has taught me so much and helped me to harness a rigour to my practice that I think necessary to allow me to continue making and being critical and curious continuously. For me, teaching is reciprocal, and I found myself learning so much while also teaching, particularly in such an interdisciplinary environment. My favourite teaching moments often occurred in my Concepts of Figuration classes or when working with the MFA students doing regular studio visit rotations or reviews.
You have a very extensive résumé. You’ve done many solo and group exhibitions in the US and internationally, and you’ve been published several times as well. What are some of the differences you notice in how people receive your art around the US compared to abroad?
I think in Germany, with my exhibition at Kunstpalais in Erlangen, I realised that I needed to do more unpacking of what Blackness, queerness, and intersectionality mean in the United States. Those nuances can get a bit lost, so the works need a bit more didactics to go along with them for viewers to be able to access my intentions.
In Spain, I think it was a bit of a surprise to see the enthusiasm for the materiality or certain materials that they often encounter in their own culture for various things such as some of the flowers in my works, or the heavily-beaded fabrics reminded some of the ways that women dressed during Easter celebrations or Feria.
Is there any key piece of advice that you would tell your younger self who was just starting to gain traction?
I think I would tell my younger self that it is okay to slow down sometimes and to say no to things. I often found that I put a lot of pressure to produce a lot of work quite quickly when now I appreciate moments where I allow myself to be slow or to take my time and live with a work in progress longer. I think some of the strongest work I’ve made was something that I put away and then came back to a bit later.
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And is there any key piece of advice that you always tell your students?
I always tell students to be kind to one another and try to maintain relationships with other artists, as those will be so important to you as you grow into your career.
Who are some of your favourite artists, and how have they influenced your approach to creating art?
Chris Ofili, Wangechi Mutu, and Mickalene Thomas are some of my favourite artists. The way they use colour, materiality, collage, glitter, printmaking, etc. in their paintings is so delicious. And I also love that they all have multidisciplinary practices that include sculpture, installation, photography, performance and more. Those are the types of artists that I aspire to be.
What’s next for you? Are there projects and/or exhibitions that you are currently working on?
Currently, I’m working on bringing my Barbershop Project to Armoury, and I’m continuing my tarot series as well. I have an upcoming solo exhibition at Serlachius Museum in Finland next Spring and a solo exhibition at Veta Galeria in Madrid this September.
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