After picking up oil painting at the age of 30, Somalian-born artist Uman has been lauded for their intuitive, refined, and unpredictable use of color. As a self-taught artist, such a sophisticated implementation of color is not often found. Considered an outsider artist because they were not formally trained, Uman’s work is mightily emotional and abstract while combining symbols that represent their past in Africa. While their primary medium is oil paint, Uman combines acrylic paint and collage techniques to create expressive and flamboyant representations of the natural world, wonderous imaginings, and lyrical autobiography.
I took a trip north to Albany to visit Uman’s studio where they recently bought a building minutes away from Empire State Plaza. They have been meticulously converting it into an enormous studio with multiple rooms and a gallery space where they intend to host local artist art shows. They poured concrete on the floors, broke down old walls and erected new ones, and installed a new lighting system and garage door to easily move out their oversized canvases. I was impressed by Uman’s gallant effort to resurrect this old building into a highly functioning modern art studio. Throughout their studio artworks for her recent show, XXX, were leaning against the walls, side by side. While viewing each of the canvases I was confronted with messages of joy, which I came to learn is the emotion Uman wants most to share with the world. Shy by nature, Uman is more concerned with creating art than talking about themselves or hobnobbing with the über influential New York City art crowd, and this is what I found most curious, especially from an outsider artist. Uman is most concerned with the mirthful act of making art, living a life they and they alone dictate and surrounding themselves by nature.
I spent the early afternoon with Uman to learn about her African Muslim upbringing, moving to New York and choosing to live miles away from the New York City art scene, the importance of being true to themselves, what creating art means to them, and how they feel about being termed an outsider artist.
Uman, you were in your 20s when you first came to New York, and you were very glamorous when you arrived.
Yes, I was aspiring to be glamorous. I had youth on my side, was surrounded by glamorous women and I fit in. When I moved to upstate New York everything changed, I let the glamourous side of me go and focused on being an artist. I realized that I had to choose one path, and the path I had to choose was to be a painter.
Do you paint a lot of self-portraits?
How do you depict yourself?
I used to do collages of myself. My first solo show at White Columns was based on photos of myself through my transition. In fact, I have that painting here in my studio and you can see my body going through my transformation—one side of my chest in the collage was flat with my scar and the other side still had my implant. I wanted to memorialize that life, that past, glamourous life. I think everything I do now is a self-portrait in different ways. Even my abstract paintings, mythical in nature, are self-portraits. I love drama, and so I depict myself with several mouths, and several eyes, just like a creature.
When did you know you were an artist?
I knew I was an artist when I was very young and in school in Africa. Being an artist was something I wanted to do more than anything. I would draw on the school walls, and on the desks, and my parents got a call about my “vandalism” from the school every semester. We had three months of school and then a break, three months of school, and then a break because it’s a different system in Africa. So, after every three-month semester, my parents would be given a fine and have to buy a new desk because I always drew on them. I would draw penises, naked women, and all kinds of things that were considered offensive, so I finally got some sketchbooks. Growing up in a Muslim home isn’t conducive to being an artist like me, so my sketchbooks would always disappear because the contents were offensive to my mom and everyone else in my family so whoever found them would trash them. I remember my mom throwing away photos I took, and they were harmless photos, just photos I took of people in the city, and tourists in Mombasa which is a beach resort town in Kenya. Later, I went to fashion school and moved to Paris to learn how to make clothes because I love clothes. I was good at sewing and my designs were very original. I could find hand-me-downs and reinvent them. The 90s was a time for me to experiment with looks, that’s what I was interested in.
In Islam, depicting the human form is considered idolatry, thereby a sin against God and forbidden in the Qur’an, correct?
Was there concern that you were going against the religion?
Right. Even today my father doesn't know that I am an artist. He doesn’t know that I was featured in the New York Times and had gallery shows because he would never understand it. This is somebody I send money to, who benefits from me making art, and he says you should try Islamic calligraphy, it's nobler my son. I always say, yes, father. A lot of parents from that part of the world want their kids to do something that will keep up with appearances, something respectable, like going to law school. I have a sister who’s a doctor and internist at Harlem Hospital and she went to school for over 10 years just to get there. I was never an academic. I was terrible in school; I was just very creative. I knew I wanted to be an artist I just didn't know I wanted to be a painter until I came to New York.
Do you have any inner conflict between the doctrines you grew up with and what you want to express in your art?
At this stage in my life, I don't care. I'm such an outsider from that world, so I create what I want without thinking about who or what I will offend.
It’s interesting that you referred to yourself as an outsider because many of your past interviewers refer to you as an outsider artist. After all, you don't have formal art training. So being an outsider is a theme.
Yes, and I don't look at it as a bad thing, what’s important is how you see yourself. An outsider for me is someone who can get into places that regular people can't get into and I've had that luck my whole life. Even growing up in Mombasa I had friends who lived in mansions and I lived in a modest, small house, and I would stay with them because I aspired for something better than what I had. I think nothing is impossible and that’s how I move in the world. If I want to do something I will do it without family support. Being a successful painter in New York requires you to go to the top art schools, have an MFA, and another helpful layer is to come from a wealthy family so you don’t have to be a starving artist. Many successful artists with New York City galleries have come from money, you’d be surprised, and I am the opposite of that. I don't like to say I’m self-made because I've had so many people lifting me, angels, and my dear, beloved friend Kenny who I just lost bought paintings from me for $200 in 2014, which was a lot of money for me then. I certainly do not feel like I am inside the art world. I will always be an outsider.
You visited your first museum when you were 17.
Yes, in Vienna, Austria.
What was your first response, your first emotion when you went into the museum?
My first response was simply being in a state of wonder. I just felt this great joy. I get happy looking at pictures, looking at art. I would consume the artists’ work; it just gave me so much satisfaction and a feeling that possibilities are endless. I was drawn to German abstract paintings and that even pushed me further to think I could do this too. Never, ever, in my wildest dreams did I think that 20 years later I would be a professional artist.
Tell me about the mediums you use?
I use acrylics and then I finish with oils. I never use a lot of pigment because I like my work to look washy, like how watercolors look.
Some of your canvases are not primed, the canvas itself is part of the painting.
I find beauty it the canvas itself. It’s a beautiful strong material that sometimes needs to participate in the painting.
The affinity for the canvas material maybe your past as a fashion designer working its way into your work today.
Hm, I never thought about it like that, but that makes sense. I have always loved materials.