Devan Shimoyama, Sudden Darkness, Sudden Flight (Paradise Watcher), 2016, acrylic, oil, colored pencil, beads, glitter, and feathers on canvas, 62 × 42".

Devan Shimoyama, Sudden Darkness, Sudden Flight (Paradise Watcher), 2016, acrylic, oil, colored pencil, beads, glitter, and feathers on canvas, 62 × 42".

Devan Shimoyama

Devan Shimoyama is fast becoming recognized for his luminous, bejeweled imaginings of queer black men in overgrown, moonlit forests or within the convivial locales of barbershops. In “Cry, Baby,” his first solo museum exhibition, the artist has set out to reckon with the latter social space as a “more realistic” setting for black masculinity while positioning sylvan swaths of land as mythic counterpoints. What resonates, however, are the moments that cradle and peel back that division, poetically articulating how the two climes are bound up in the black radical tradition—and imagination. In a word, Shimoyama is invested in what historian Robin D. G. Kelley calls “freedom dreaming.”

 The reverie began on opening night—the late hour fittingly parallel to that of Shimoyama’s nighttime self-portraiture—with a performance that started in the foyer of the Andy Warhol Museum and was led by the Miami drag queen and bodybuilder Miss Toto. Decked out in a flowy silk frock, Miss Toto channeled Harriet Tubman with élan and verve as she furtively gamboled about, feigning to search for the black people in the crowd. I just so happened to be one of the few individuals shepherded to the edge of a stage, guided by her compact LED lantern, while the whistles and driving bass of “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train),” by Quad City DJ’s, readied us—a fugitive gathering of black folk—to figuratively “play this game.” “This game” was one of fantasy and futurity, a reflection on how fugitive flight, in the not-so-distant past, likely happened in the dead of night, with bodies brushing up against verdurous landscapes that provided another layer of stealth. Miss Toto’s performance prepared us to read the thirty-odd paintings, prints, and works on paper on view as complex forays into freedom—not simply fantastical but rather wedded to a familiar past.

“Cry, Baby” opens with Andy Warhol’s Unidentified Male, 1950s, a tender, diminutive drawing that depicts an effeminate man weeping. Streaming down from his right eye are seven teardrops, three of which are filled in to resemble arrowheads. More tears—or raindrops—fall at a diagonal across the iron-gray-painted wall at the back of the show. These black, shimmering ovals not only gesture toward Shimoyama’s nighttime paintings that dot the neighboring walls but also envelop works hung on the same wall that render black men or boys in barbershops—such as Cut 4 Me and Finesse, both 2017—thereby bridging the two bodies of work. Finesse is rich with femme, campy extravagance: A barber’s cape embellished with dark feathers dangles from the canvas, clipper cords are adorned with gems, and the stylist’s reddish acrylic nails are dusted with glitter. Despite the surrounding glamour, the seated patron’s diamanté eyes are welling up with rhinestones. If we consider black barbershops as “hush harbors”—surreptitious places where black people create community and dialogue on economic opportunity and social mobility—then those tears might signal the release possible in these enclaves, where queer black men might temporarily escape the hypermasculine tropes to which they are often confined.

True escape from these limitations comes in the form of magic in, say, He Whispers Light into the Night, 2015. Here, at the witching hour, the sparkly night sky brightens blackened leaves and branches while a male figure casts spells through the rainbow prism of his lips. The beam of light radiating from his gaping mouth also washes his face in an illusory glow that offers up his body as a beacon of emancipation. He seems to await the subject of Sudden Darkness, Sudden Flight (Paradise Watcher), 2016, a twilit tableau in which palm fronds and pinkish-blue raindrops camouflage a vigilant figure seeking an opportunity to flee.

 Riffing on a verse from Saul Williams’s She (1999), Shimoyama frames blackness as “luminous” and always adjusting to context. It is through those adaptations that the artist quietly questions the modernist conceptions of nature as feminine and culture as masculine, lavishly queering both categories. Ultimately, the canvas becomes a space of gender performativity where, as feminist scholar Hortense Spillers might have said, black queer men “learn who the female is” within themselves, using myth and reality as signposts.

Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi