If ever I update my book Transformations, I may well open with the story of Naomi Uman.
Uman is an American artist. In her first career she worked as a private chef for Gloria Vanderbilt, Malcolm Forbes, and Calvin Klein. She then turned to filmmaking and her work’s been screened at The Guggenheim, The Whitney, and the Museo de Art Moderno in Mexico City.
Uman’s great-grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine in 1906 and a century later she returned there, settling for four years in a remote village called Legedzine.
Out of this experience came Ukrainian Time Machine, a cycle of 16mm films that give us everyday activities, a local wedding, a small brick factory and glimpses of the world that her ancestors occupied long ago.
The Nazis inflicted a murderous devastation on the Jewish community of the Ukraine and there are some places Uman’s time machine can never take us. But parts of the Ukraine are relatively untouched by urbanization and industrialization, and here and there she finds traces of the 19th century and the world we have lost.
Uman “re-entry” was not easy. Virtually everything that defined her made her unwelcome. She was an unattached, Jewish, woman with a full body tattoo who at first didn’t speak Ukrainian, and who made art for a living. In some quarters, only her dog (pictured) broke the ice.
Uman stuck it out for 4 years. (She may still live there. I found the record unclear.) We sometimes talk about the “old country.” We are eager to catch a glimpse of the Europe, Asia, Africa from which we come. We might dedicate an vacation to a search for “ancestral origins” in, say, the highlands of Scotland or the basin of the Amazon. But, really, who goes back? Who learns the language? Who bears witness to horror? Who inflicts on themselves the discomforts and alienations of being an outsider? Who gives up home?
Really, as a transformational exercise, this is heroic and pretty close to unprecedented.
anonymous. n.d. Festival PdV 26-02-2011 Coloquio Naomi Uman “Ukranian time machine.”