Uman has—and this is something it is compulsory to mention in any account—a life story that is interesting in itself, one that spans continents, cultures, languages, and genders. Born in Somalia in 1980, the artist grew up in Kenya before moving to Denmark as a teenager. Since 2004 Uman has lived in the United States—first in New York City and more recently upstate. Somewhere along this journey, she learned to understand herself as gender fluid.
All this is important. One day, knowing more about this journey will tell us more about how Uman became the artist she is, how the multiplicity of realities she passed through have contributed to the depth of her art. But for now, at what is still the outset of Uman’s artistic career, I want to keep my eye on the paintings themselves. And there’s plenty to look at: Materially, formally, and as images, these are complicated paintings. They don’t offer a straightforward read. What’s clear is that the artist uses the process of making to push past the obvious, to elaborate on and at the same to veil—as Jackson Pollock used to say—the underlying subject. “Everything starts from something figurative and I just change it to a non-image,” Uman once said. “I can’t really explain it. You have to dig so deep inside of you.” Painting thereby becomes an internally powered process of transformation.
In this intuitive process of transformation, materials are used in a free and improvisatory way. Oil, enamel, acrylic, oil stick—each has its own character and makes a different contribution to the whole. Most of Uman’s recent paintings use them all: mixed materials for a mixed texture. Each mark seems to function as a possible point of transition to a mark of a different sort, and its physical character is as significant as its chromatic value. The eye “touches” the surface in as many different ways as the surface offers differences to be registered. Looking becomes an exploratory process untethered to likeness or representation—the corporeality of vision dances a pas de deux with the materiality of surface. In this way, the painting becomes eventful on a level that is pre-imagistic—an abstract level, if you will, although Uman’s paintings are no more abstract, at least in the usual sense of the word, than they are figurative.
But when I speak of the surface of one of these paintings, I am simplifying. And not only because the variousness of their facture, which means that at a basic level they always present a multiplicity; alongside the juxtaposition of elements, there is also a layering that is often highly complex, and has become more so with time. A good example of this would be Uman and Henry Having a Roseboom Summer, 2021-22. Its multitude of lines and shapes is so intricately meshed together it might seem impossible to pull out an organizing image. The title might suggest a pastoral anecdote of some kind, and “Roseboom,” I guess, refers to the town of that name in upstate New York; but it’s hard to locate the two named protagonists in the dense weave of overlapping linear motifs and the mass of bubbly circles and vaguely botanical motifs (and at least one snake or eel). Every time I think I catch sight within it of something I can recognize and name, I want to question myself: Am I seeing that image or just projecting its presence there? For instance, down at the bottom right corner, can that really be the red outline of a shoe? I can’t say it’s not. But why, for goodness sake, a stray shoe of all things? And then once I see that little bunch of lines as a shoe, what happens? Well, I see that shape scrawled in flock of pink and blue lines and culminating in four red circles as a foot!—a four-toed foot, mind you, but still a foot. And then the lines that form the foot continue as a longer bunch of lines that might as well be a leg, and then suddenly that leg connects to a torso and another leg… So there is a sort of figure in this painting after all, although it hardly imposes itself (and lacks, as far as I can tell, the head that would give it identity—it seems to stop at the waist). And then, strange to say, I do see little by little something else accompanying this half-figure, a sort of three-clawed bird-animal thing with a long snout or pointy beak, a wide eye topped by something like a rooster’s comb. It’s got stripes along the side of its body, but they end in little red loops—I thought these were berries of some sort, hanging on their stems, until I started to see the “stems” as part of the creature’s flank. If the half figure is Uman, this strange pet must be Henry. And yet, having almost against my better judgement discerned this pair of presences in the painting—and although I didn’t see them at first, I can now no longer unsee them—I’ve hardly untangled the secret of this painting. These ambiguous images emerge from a proliferating tangle of colored strokes like vines twining around vines wrapped around more vines. One might almost feel that the artist added the two beings as an afterthought, for the sheer charm of lending the wildly abstract jubilee of energies she’s painted a bit of imagistic focus.
What I keep coming back to in Uman and Henry Having a Roseboom Summer (and the same would be true of most of the other Uman paintings I’ve seen) is this insistent sense of unknowing. I mean my own unknowing, not the painter’s. From her I get the sense of being totally in control—not of being totally controlling of the painting, which is a different thing, but of always knowing how to do what she is doing, which includes letting the painting go its own way when it has interesting ways to go. As complicated as the paintings get, they never feel confused or muddy. The paintings make me think of something Jasper Johns once said. He noted that in certain kinds of painting, “what we call a ‘thing’ becomes very elusive and very flexible, and it involves the arrangement of elements before us, and it also involves the arrangement of our senses at the time of encountering this thing. It involves the way we focus, what we are willing to accept as being there.
It would be hard to think of two painters more dissimilar in style than Uman and Johns, but they share this in common, that they put the viewer in the position of having to rearrange one’s senses in the process of getting more deeply entangled in their work. And that self-rearranging feels good, doesn’t it? This art teaches us not to put our faith in the stability of the self. Here’s where I come back, in a very general sort of way, to the question that I began this essay by putting to the side, the question of what Uman’s complicated life history might have to do with the richness and complexity of her art. I wanted to put it aside because I wanted to come to the art first of all from the perspective of my own experience as a beholder—to see what comes out the paintings before trying to understand what went into them. And I am just starting to do that. But I do think that this capacity to reconfigure elements, and in so doing reconfigure oneself, is likely to become more developed in someone who has, whether through necessity or choice, learned to live amidst a multitude of different realities, as Uman has done. What’s so moving in her art is the great distance the paintings seem to pass through from their inception to the highly elaborate compositions they end up as, and from image to non-image (and perhaps halfway back again. But I’ve noticed that people who emigrate often feel that they have to cut out parts of their past in order to thrive in their new environment. Uman’s paintings suggest that there’s another way. In them, new layers build continually upon the previous ones, but one never feels that anything’s been hidden, erased, or denied in the process; I wonder if she lives her passage through so many cultures with the same sense of wholeness. The final image always seems to echo the many configurations behind it, to bring forward something that must have already been there—a sort of memory of what had not yet taken place. I want to give it a musical metaphor, more than a pictorial one, by quoting something that the jazz musician Ornette Coleman once said: “When you hear something that has a story that you know, that feeling has been traveling a long time.” Yes. Uman’s paintings don’t tell stories but if we listen, they might tell us a far-traveled feeling we feel we know.
1. Priscilla Frank, “Meet Uman, The Gender Fluid Artist Who Taught Herself To Express,” HuffPost (January 7, 2016), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/meet-uman-the-mysterious-artist-who-embraces-multiplicity-in-work-and-life_n_568d6648e4b0c8beacf55789.
2. Jasper Johns, “Interview with David Sylvester, recorded for the BBC in June 1965 in Edisto Beach, South Carolina,” Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. by Kirk Varnedoe (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 115.
3. Ornette Coleman to Ashley Kahn, quoted in the notes to Ornette Coleman! Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums, CR00321 (Los Angeles: Craft Recordings, 2021).