The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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MAY 2023 Issue
Art In Conversation

Uman with Chris Martin

Portrait of Uman, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Uman, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
On View
Nicola Vassell Gallery
I Want Everything Now
May 4–June 17, 2023
New York

On a sunny spring day I drove through the Catskill Mountains to visit my friend Uman at her South Pearl Street studio in downtown Albany. Her eight thousand square foot studio building was filled with paintings, drawings, painted objects, mannequins, fabrics, boxes of oil sticks, brushes and paint, and new glass sculptures that had just arrived in crates from San Francisco. Several workers were busy in the woodshop staining and making frames for new paintings. Her friend and studio manager, Joey Perez, helped with myriad details.

Chris Martin (Rail): Uman! It’s exciting to be here in your studio surrounded by so much wonderful work!

Uman: It’s lovely to see you.

Rail: There’s a painting behind us with a big map of Africa. And it reminds me what an amazing personal journey you have had—from Africa to America.

Uman: Well, I was born in Somalia. My parents are Somalis who have roots in northeast Kenya. My father worked along the coast of Kenya because of the shipping business that goes from Somalia, Kismayo, to Mombasa. We spoke Somali and also English in Kenya and Arabic when studying the Quran. Whether we were in Mombasa, for holidays, or Nairobi, in Kenya, my parents always made sure that we had madrasa. Sort of like, “Who's the closest teacher to come and teach these kids how to read the Quran and recite it?” And I was such a rebel.

Uman, <em>Amapiano Dance</em>, 2022-2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas, 62 5/8 x 62 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.
Uman, Amapiano Dance, 2022-2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas, 62 5/8 x 62 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.

Rail: And did you learn to write a kind of calligraphic Arabic?

Uman: I was never proficient, because I was sort of a daydreamer, you know, but I learned how to do it because I was scared to be caned. You know the teacher would beat you with a stick—

Rail: Damn!

Uman: Yeah. And the Somali Civil War was happening—my memory at that time was, oh, you would go to the market and you’d carry bags of money to buy bread. We moved full time in 1989 to Kenya with extended family—so many Somalis were fleeing the war. Then I was able to go to Denmark when I was around thirteen—I had relatives in Europe and Denmark who had left Somalia in the 1970s. I was sent to relatives there and to a refugee program where they teach you the language and you kind of have a home.

Rail: That must have been quite a shock when you first went to live in Denmark.

Uman: For me, it was a shock—but it’s easier to assimilate as a young person. I had always wanted to come to America and I was like “Europe is one step closer to America,” you know? I was a daydreamer—even when I saw my first snow I was like, not so impressed. [Laughter]

Rail: Were you interested in art or visual things?

Uman: I just knew that I wanted to do something with fashion. And I loved to draw. I loved color and illustration. And I wanted to do something creative. You know?

Rail: Were you able to see art and museums?

Uman: I had an aunt in Vienna married to an Austrian guy and there was a cluster of her Somali and Kenyan friends who were more liberal, more open. I was sixteen and she showed me art—she had a big influence on my life.

Rail: You have been making drawings ever since childhood?

Uman: Right, but I never thought of it as something that could be a career or make a living.

Rail: The idea that you could make a career out of doing art was—

Uman: Ridiculous!

Rail: [Laughter] And when did you come to New York?

Uman: I was in my twenties. And I just had a one way ticket, you know. I was young and I just came to New York and I—no plan whatsoever. Just go there, something great will happen. It was like a voice inside of me.

Rail: Wow! That’s so brave and wonderful.

Uman: It was a big struggle for many years. To find my place. But I also made good friends who helped me.

Rail: How did your sense of yourself as a woman and a trans person unfold in New York?

Uman: I've always been trans. I always knew that was part of myself. I think I was such a feminine kid that I didn't give a fuck, I was just like, living my life. I was entertaining. I was flamboyant. I walked around the school with my mother's scarf and somehow I ended up wearing it around my neck, and kids found it amusing. That sense of freedom is lost the older you get, and people soon made me aware of it by taunting me, but I knew “This is who I am.” And that belief made me reject them. I always said, “I'm going to leave this place and I’m never turning back. Never looking back.” I had to be free and not be around certain family members. Once I moved to New York, it felt like, “there's not that many people here who know me. I can really just be who I am.”

Rail: Which is a lovely New York story. I came here in the seventies and I met so many people that had to leave their families to find a place where they could be gay or artists or just be themselves. What was it like to come to a new city and explore the gay-trans world?

Uman: Well this was back around 2000—and the community was a very small visible group and most of the girls knew each other or of each other. I felt loved among them, and supported. We used to hang out at the Christopher Street piers and also at meetings at the LGBT center on 13th street.

Uman, <em>Pink Dress</em>, 2022-2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas, 86 13/16 x 86 13/16 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.
Uman, Pink Dress, 2022-2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas, 86 13/16 x 86 13/16 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.

Rail: I used to go to meetings there. It’s a great place. Did you dig the great Keith Haring sex mural in the second floor bathroom?

Uman: Yes! Loved it—that was the first Haring piece I ever saw and I didn’t know who he was at first. That was when I was first learning about street art and graffiti. You know the gay scene was so much smaller then—not at the level it is today. Now the kids have more access and scrutiny in the social media world—and they are much more fierce in how they express themselves! But looking back I wouldn’t change a thing.

Rail: You found your tribe!

Uman: I tried to go to all these groups, you know, trauma groups and therapy groups and around 2005 someone told me you need to meet Dr. Annatina Miescher. She was doing this art therapy thing at Bellevue. She was so wild. She had pigtails and had henna, red braided hair, and a big Swiss goat bone in her ear. And she just looked very cool.

Rail: She is very cool. She’s amazing.

Uman: Her sessions are really long, because she wants to know everything about you. She calls it a family tree. The office was beautiful with yellow walls. There was a bird in her office at some point. And she was turning a parking lot in the back of the hospital into a garden—and said, “You can come work on weekends—we have to pour dirt and we’ll make some art and mosaics.” There was a stipend from the hospital that got me a little money. I found canvases. Sometimes I would find them at the thrift store and paint over them. You know, some unknown painters’ works, I’ve covered them. I remember I gave her a painting for her birthday. And there’s a wisteria tree that I grew there that's huge. Still there. Like she actually saw me and believed in me as an artist. Over the years, you know, she’s just been a force, and has helped me reach this level of maturity in my work.

Rail: You were lucky.

Uman: Around then I met Kenny Gutierrez who volunteered at Bellevue teaching computer classes. Like in the early 2000s, not many people knew how to use a computer. Kenny had this building—137 West 14th Street—I took an art class there and would always carry around a bunch of canvases. He offered me a space to keep my paintings in—that was really my first ever studio. Sometimes when the weather was great, I would go on the roof and paint and go to sleep up there. I'm very grateful to him. And that’s where I met Joey Perez, my studio manager. He was part of this collective—Babycastles—and four or five of us shared a big studio room. There was a second floor space that we used for art shows and performances. Joey comes from a design background but was so supportive and creative and curious. We work well together.

Uman, <em>Yellow #5</em>, 2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on stitched canvas pieces. 86 3/8 x 86 3/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.
Uman, Yellow #5, 2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on stitched canvas pieces. 86 3/8 x 86 3/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.

Rail: You told me you used to sell your paintings at Union Square.

Uman: Yeah. That was super wild. I didn’t have a table or anything, and I just put paintings on the floor. This is how I met Denis Arvay—my husband—we met there and exchanged information—he’s an artist and an angel. He has been my teacher. He’s very disciplined and has always taken his painting practice seriously, even when working in corporate America. He’s the one who taught me how to use oil paint and how to have a structured practice. And I’ve learned so much history from him, and we’ve shared this great love of animals and love of nature.

Rail: I first met you both in Roseboom at your studios in upstate New York. I had heard about your show with Matthew Higgs and we talked about you—I’ve discovered so many interesting artists through Matthew! Then I saw your wonderful show at David Fierman Gallery. I had been following you on Instagram and was fascinated to see photos of your paintings outside in the countryside and leaning against fences with chickens and dogs around. I also remember one fabulous image of you in a sequin gown posing on a hay bale. [Laughter]

Uman: Roseboom is a slice of paradise. I had a number of years when I was there and just being comfortable, raising animals, and living this country life. People think it’s so romantic, you can have a garden and chickens and sheep and dogs and all of that. Actually it took over my life—it’s a lot of work.

Rail: Well I see so many chickens and wild plant forms and dogs and stars in the work—you were painting the whole time?

Uman: I was painting in the nighttime.

Rail: You also had an observatory.

Uman: Denis loves to look at the sky. You know he’ll get up at 3 a.m. looking at stars. Every now and then he would say “Do you want to look at Saturn or the moon?” That's probably in my painting too. It's such a beautiful thing to look at the night sky. It's not just the land and the creatures, it’s more like everything: the empty sky, the quiet, the silence, the birds migrating.

Rail: I remember how sad you were when Henry, your favorite rooster, died, and then you made all these terrific, very fierce paintings of him. But your work is also filled with African camels and antelopes and the natural world you knew as a child.

Uman: My favorite place as a child was not Mombasa. My oldest aunt lived in a place called Turkana. Northern Kenya. She was a widow who raised twelve girls. She had a general store and was the only person with electricity because she had a generator which she ran for an hour a day. She was really strong to live out there by herself. The desert is so mystical, you know. And I even got bitten by a scorpion. She had people herding her animals. She had goats. She had camels. But it was heaven to me. It was heaven because there was nobody there. And I think that's why I love upstate New York.

Uman, Zigzag Rolled on a Blunt, 2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas. 86 3/4 x 86 11/16 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.

Rail: You make great camel paintings! I feel all your paintings have a rhythm and special patterned color that can feel very African. They remind me of Islamic art.

Uman: Yes, I'm aware of that influence from Islamic art, and also the colors of what women wore back in Africa. Somali people really love color. My paintings are all essentially self-portraits—self-portraits, fashioned into this pattern. The African influence is definitely strong in my work. And I don’t purposely do that. It just comes out. When I see how I draw, or scribble or doodle or—it always has a slant, like Islamic calligraphy.

Rail: We’ve talked before about you taking a trip to Africa—you haven’t been back since you were thirteen years old. Will you go back?

Uman: Soon I hope—I definitely owe it to myself to visit after all this time. My older sister Fadumo goes back regularly and she sees old friends who knew me as a kid. I have many happy memories of Kenya. You know I used to have this fantasy of going back and buying land and building a home there. But these days I think New York is my home. I’d find it difficult to go back and live as freely as I would like. Money can protect gay people but the laws are still repressive. Uganda is next door to Kenya and they just made laws putting anyone identifying as gay in prison and they even include the death penalty for “repeat offenders”! I mean even here we have to fight to protect our rights—these Florida “don’t say gay” laws are horrible. I don’t want to hide myself just to visit. But I want to go back.

Rail: I was so proud that my daughter could marry her wife here in New York State—and now a few years later I have to worry that the Supreme Court could take that away. We have to fight to protect our rights! And these Florida “don’t say gay” laws are horrible.

Uman: And there was that Pulse nightclub massacre…

Rail: Well, for you to show your paintings and wear a dress in this city are political acts! I think the whole art world is much more aware now that nothing can be taken for granted—freedom is always under attack. Let me ask you about the freedom you have within your painting practice. You use a lot of different paints and materials—acrylic and oils, oil sticks, spray paint—you paint sculptures and furniture and all manner of surfaces and use a lot of different brushes and marks. You make abstract work and figurative work side by side—I’ve seen you change trees and portraits into abstract patterns and seen tangled calligraphy morph into clear figures. So sometimes I see just scribbles, sometimes chickens or camels. There seems to be this very fluid language in your paintings—you’ve found a lot of freedom.

Uman: I don’t follow a lot of rules. And I think that helps me, because my mind is not restricted. I’m impulsive. Sometimes I start from a figure and it mutates into something else, into an abstract composition. I just go by my instincts. If I feel like adding a face or an eye or hands, I go with that.

Rail: You don’t often make a painting based on a drawing?

Uman: Very rarely.

Rail: How do you know when a painting is finished?

Uman: A feeling. I do walk away from it and I look and look. The best thing I do is don’t touch it. Start a new one. That’s why I have many unfinished works and I think it's a good way for me.

Rail: I've been in your studio when we were painting together and I watched you take a tube of orange and drift in and out of different rooms adding color to all the paintings at once. How do you work with the color?

Uman: I’m still discovering color. I go with my feelings. The part of me that feels the composition, the balance, knows how to balance colors. Just like I knew how to dress when I was seven years old. I've never learned color theory or anything to do with that.

Rail: I was never any good with color theory.

Uman: And so if you’re sort of self taught, you have this open mind where you can channel everything that comes to you and just throw it in there.

Rail: Well, you may be self-taught—I mean seriously we’re all self taught. But you're not like an outsider artist. I mean, you are very aware of—

Uman: Insider art. No, I'm not living in a shack upstate. [Laughter] I feel a lot of influences—I love European painting, Matisse, Picasso, Kippenberger was a terrific painter. I love Kusama. I love Martha Diamond’s work. I also love Rose Wylie. I learned so much from artists and friends that I've made. And it's really, really important to have an artist community, it helps you become yourself.

Rail: You mentioned being inspired by Rene Ricard.

Uman: Annatina took me to visit him in the Chelsea Hotel—I saw his paintings in the studio he shared with Rita Barros. I loved to talk with him—he was so brilliant. I loved to listen to him, loved the sound of his voice. He was very encouraging. Once he and Edit DeAk came to a group show at our 14th Street space and he bought one of my collage paintings and she bought a small cutout for 25 dollars. Sadly he died before I could deliver it to him. One funny story—I told him how terrific and funny one of his blow job paintings was, and he gave it to me! So Annatina and I were walking back through Chelsea with the painting and I didn’t want to be seen holding it—the text says: “Blow Jobs 5 cents—With Lipstick 25 cents.” It was still wet so I made her carry it and people were laughing and pointing.

Rail: [Laughter] Rene would have loved that. We had also talked about Bjarne Melgaard, who's an artist that we both are inspired by.

Uman: Yeah, around 2011 I was invited to come to his studio in Bushwick for a project, which was pretty vague but we got to hang out. He had a giant studio, many assistants, so much work. He was doing some really wild controversial stuff—and being there I learned you could do anything you want as an artist! I think I learned how to not care however immature, childlike or brutish my art may appear.

Rail: Well, he took this freedom to express this wild, sexual, sometimes funny, sometimes ugly side of himself. He's just going wherever he—

Uman: Wherever he wants. To me it was validating because I was doing similar things. I had made a bunch of paintings of people having sex, having anal sex, whatever. And those are like my crude, really wild paintings, right. I didn’t show them—I gave them to a friend. And so years later, I see Bjarne and he has penises and shocking language, and I was like, this is really like a good way to go about art—not give a fuck and just do what comes out of you.

Uman, <em>Sumac Tree in Roseboom</em>, 2022-2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas, 86 11/16 x 86 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.
Uman, Sumac Tree in Roseboom, 2022-2023. Acrylic, oil, oil stick on canvas, 86 11/16 x 86 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joe Perez.

Rail: To not be in control can be a bit scary—to follow your imagination wherever it goes. It’s hard to watch my own judgments and feel embarrassed about a painting. A lot of different emotions can come up.

Uman: Sometimes I’m enraged.

Rail: Can you make art out of it?

Uman: Yes, of course! You know I used to complain to Annatina when I was really depressed and angry or if I felt hopeless and paralyzed and she advised me to try to channel all those feelings. I learned when I’m enraged it can be the best time to make painting.

Rail: Because you’ve got energy?

Uman: I have the energy, and then I also have this thing where I lose all concept of time. And I just go into this trance, and just this work and work and layers and layers and—fueled by that rage, I end up actually feeling more calm.

Rail: Art therapy in practice! Annatina is amazing.

Uman: Once she watched me painting these circles, and I was always very delicate and soft, you know? So she says “you’re tending to your wounds—those are your wounds, healing, you’re healing.”

Rail: Oh, that’s a lovely expression, like a soft caress of a brush. Well, we are sitting next to this bright yellow pattern painting with triangles and circles. The surface is so delicate—it’s made of separate triangles ?

Uman: Yeah—I save all my scraps of canvas—and my artist friend Amir stitched them all together.

Rail: I'm seeing that these painted circles in it could be eyeballs, they could be planets, could be a lot of things. How conscious are you of different associations in the work ?

Uman: Sometimes, when I do a camel, it’s like, just a camel. When I go more abstract a lot of people come to say, “Oh, I see this, I see that.” And I like that. And in my mind, I am made aware of things I didn't intend to put there. Because you walk away—you have to spend a lot of time looking, you know? Like the eye there. That was accidental. I became aware of it and then I painted the lines that go to form the eye.

Rail: So sometimes you are seeing something in the painting and then bringing it out by adding a few lines. I think it’s an important part of your work—that it contains so many associations without being explicit. Sometimes I’m seeing things in your paintings and wonder “did she paint that in there or am I just hallucinating it?” [Laughter] A lot of these other paintings have a wild tangled kind of octopus or serpentine form—what’s that?

Uman: I feel like I've dreamt of that for so long that it’s become part of me. And I’ve always had this dream. When I had malaria growing up as a kid, sometimes my fever got so high, I would start to hallucinate. I remember these vivid weird shapes and colors just coming to me. You know how snow comes down very fast hitting your face? That’s how these images would just come to me. And there’s this other dream where I would fall into this wavy, snake-like, you know, hellish thing. I'm deadly scared of snakes—I'm scared even of snakes in upstate New York, which are not poisonous. So those serpentine kind of octopus things come from that dream—that time of my life.

Rail: Yes. Some of the paintings here have this intense, tangled kind of ferocious energy. But there are others—like this night painting next to us that looks like you did it in one go.

Uman: Yes, this starry night painting.

Rail: It looks to me like a Catskill horizon line with stars.

Uman: That’s a landscape. From start to finish. Yeah, I knew exactly. This is one of those rare paintings where I started it and I knew it was started with blue and I knew what I wanted it to do and painted the stars in it. And here it is.

Rail: That’s actually a great painting. And next to it is another blue night painting—but with wild figures and energy—it’s like a moon on the top?

Uman: Yes. A moon and that big mouth going off to the right… Open to all kinds of things coming inside of it.

Rail: Right.

Uman: Ejaculating penis. Several penises.

Rail: And there’s like a horse over here, maybe? And there’s a potted plant. Looks like a figure with high heels…

Uman: Yes, high heels—it’s a self portrait. Sometimes I see them all as self portraits.

Rail: I noticed a number of clear self portraits. And you should celebrate yourself! I mean as a queer, trans person you were invisible in a culture that completely disapproved and denied your existence. You had the courage to go out and become yourself. Maybe that’s why you have such courage as a painter.

Uman: Yeah, I'm not scared of paint.

Rail: You're quite fearless. Let me ask you about your show last fall at Eleni Koroneou Gallery in Athens. I know you had a big success and had a great time there.

Uman: It was my first time there. Looking at the airplane map I realized how close I was to Africa. Something about the Mediterranean feels really calming to me, and Eleni was so welcoming. I felt softer and I felt calmer. But the most wonderful thing happened after I had left. Someone from a Somali refugee camp in Greece read about my show in the press and arranged for a group of young Somali boys to visit the show. They sent me videos of their visit. It was so heartwarming after all they had been through to see the possibility of a bright future through me. These young men survived a trip across Africa, and a boat trip across the Mediterranean for a better life—and now they could see someone from their homeland celebrated and successful for their work. That was special.


Chris Martin

Chris Martin is an artist. He lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

All Issues