An interview with Umico by Rosemary Liss

Umi is a trans artist and proud Gemini born in Nagoya, Japan, who breathes and eats in Baltimore. Her work has moved across disciplines from sleek digital assemblages and icon heavy objects to more wearable, edible, and communal projects. I was drawn to Umi’s work through her Instagram @shypup where she unabashedly shares her reality. This past April we had the chance to chat about recent projects and the complexity of traversing gendered, cultural, and comestible landscapes in and beyond cyberspace.  

I want to talk about your recent project and event at the BMA sculpture garden. You decided to have “a picnic for trans women by trans women where you invited both mothers and chosen mothers.” Tell me where this idea came from and how the event went.

I’m always going on about all the wonderful people in the queer community to my mom. She knows all about my transgender sisters, brothers and non-binary siblings through all the stories I share with her. I’ve told her about my crushes, the people I’ve gone on dates with and those who I owe so much to. I’ve been telling her about the trans ladies picnics that happen once a month and sending her pictures. She would always mention just how much she misses me and how wonderful it must be to surrounded by such angels; so one day I asked her whether she wanted to come join us for a picnic and it really took off from there.

You enlisted your former partner, Cherry Lau (studiosnacks) to work with your mother to cook the feast. How was this collaboration meaningful to you and what did they make?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without Cherry. They’re the reason I’m still alive and doing well in life. Both my mother and I consider them to be family so it was super important to us that we all cooked together.

I also never got to experience one of those picturesque scenes of a daughter helping out their mother in the kitchen. I missed out on a lot of gender-based clichés. It felt good to be able to cook with two of my most favorite people and share that with everyone at the picnic.

How was the comestible component of this project important to you and the work you are thinking about and creating? Do you see this as separate from your studio practice or are they inevitably linked?

I have always dealt with the theme of food in my artwork. Mainly because my former partner of six years was a culinary artist and we would constantly either collaborate on projects together or heavily influence one another. One time we catered an opening of a show with crickets and mealworms stuffed into tacos. It was so much fun interacting with the viewers and to witness such genuine reactions. I’m so darn skeptical of what people say during openings, it really stresses me out because out of politeness everyone becomes extremely disingenuous.

In preparation for the picnic, we made Japanese rice balls with different seasonings and stuffings wrapped in roasted seaweed sheets. It’s a staple back home and I wanted to share that part of my experience with everyone at the picnic. We prepared different flavors; one that was stuffed with tuna, another one was rolled in dried egg flakes and my favorite one being the ultimate classic; the rice ball rolled in shiso with a sour pickled plum at the center.

Rice ball flavors from left to right, shiso leaves with a pickled plum at the center, tuna and egg

After the success of the picnic what has changed in your relationships with yourself and others? Has this inspired more events to come?

I’m thinking about proposing a trans ladies slumber party or possibly a camping trip soon. Wouldn’t that be so cool? I would love to sit around a campfire with a bunch of my sisters roasting marshmallows, sharing scary stories and stargazing. Getting away for a couple days from the grim reality of being transgender in this messed up world, y’know?

I’d like to talk more about your practice as an artist. Can you discuss your show at Terrault and the choice/process to take such a public stage to share with the world your decision to transition? I understand you left for your opening that night with your first round of estrogen under your tongue so it would start to work it’s magic in the midst of your reception. I see this as a beautiful act of art making and I am so drawn to work like yours that is fully and completely enmeshed in the daily rituals of living.

I did take the estrogen at the opening, yes! It felt like a scene out of a movie. I’ve never felt more empowered and badass as I did on the bus ride down to the opening reception. I truly felt alive and in high definition for the first time. It was a means of forcing myself to take action. I’m personally not very brave but for the sake of art I’m able to be fearless and so for a brief second I was traversing the realm that exists between purely living and performance art. The days leading up to the show came with a lot of doubt though. I wondered whether I was getting carried away with a performance, that maybe I’m an incredibly convincing method actor and I was actually in fact a man. That fear and doubt melted away though the moment I popped that pill, I knew with every bone in my body that this is what my body had been craving for decades and I couldn’t go another day without it.

Have your friends and family been supportive of your choice to transition and how have your relationships changed through this journey?

I’ve received nothing but support. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the parents and the sister that I do. I never quite had a relationship with my sister, we rarely ever spoke for the past decade. She had every right to be mad at me when I came out to her and then placed her in the center of my artwork in such a public setting but she wasn’t; she had nothing but kind words and love.

I desperately wanted to spend some time with her so we bought plane tickets to meet up in Iceland. It was such an amazing trip. Had you told me a couple years ago that I would someday be sitting on a couch in the countryside of Iceland gossiping with my sister late into the night I wouldn’t have believed it.

What’s next?

This is a long-term future dream of mine but I’d like to work towards building a cabin on the edge of a lake to either establish a free school and host camps for queer and trans youth. I grew up watching the X-Men series and loved the idea of the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, an academy for gifted mutants. As a queer soul trapped in an all boy’s school in the countryside of England I strongly related to the mutant students and greatly admired Professor Charles Xavier. I think it would be hardcore to scout out fellow “mutants” and bring out their full potential. Much like the characters in the show, I grew up having to hide my true identity my entire childhood. Those are years I never get to relive and that’s so messed up. I want to help raise the next generation to be unyieldingly strong and powerful.

Of all the things you cook or eat, what dish is the most nostalgic for you?

Roasted rice cakes wrapped in seaweed and dipped in soy sauce. My grandma used to make them on the space heater for my cousins and I when we were younger. It’s unbelievably easy to make them but it wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t made by my grandma.

What’s your favorite mouth-feel?

There’s an iconic scene in the Japanese film “Tampopo” where a man and a woman pass an egg yolk back and forth. It’s such a turn on, you should definitely go watch it if you haven’t already. I’ve never personally experienced it but the part where the woman bites down and it bursts gives me shivers. I would definitely like to experience that mouth-feel someday but eggs here seem a little risky y’know?

What flavors turn you on?

Sour flavors like taking shots of apple cider vinegar or pickled plums that my grandma back home feeds me. It’s because your entire body experiences it, and the tips of my fingers and toes tingle.

Do you ever play with food in any sexual acts or experiences?

When I was in high school I got to play around with whipped cream. I got carried away with making preparations the day before and ended up buying six large cans of it. I hid them in the back of the fridge and couldn’t come up with a convincing reason as to why for my mother.

If you could eat something without fear and with complete abandon what would it be?

Rice and bread! I’m having a terribly busy week and so I’m currently cooking up some rice right now as comfort food but I’m so darn stressed and worried I won’t be able to control myself if I take even just one bite.

I am intently interested in how nebulous the line between restorative and disordered eating can be. Can you elaborate more on your feelings towards food, body confidence and psychological health? Food is so ingrained in our emotional landscape and while it can undoubtedly be medicine our relationship with food can often be incredibly fraught.

It’s not until I began to transition and started to identify as a woman that I realized that I suffer from an eating disorder. I began to receive compliments for my “slim” figure instead of being told that I should gain weight for being too “scrawny”. It’s only then that I managed to put things into perspective.

I used to be under the assumption that eating foods rich in carbohydrates would elevate my testosterone levels. I was terrified of that happening and so I began to religiously exclude noodles, bread and my beloved rice from all meals. I would make excuses to family and friends by pretending to be health conscious when in reality it was something far deeper. I hated going back home to visit and still do because my grandma would always cook for me food that I would secretly throw away when she wasn’t looking. I feel terrible for admitting this. It’s also the case that I’m not perfectly fluent in Japanese and she hardly speaks English; food is our common language and it breaks me to reject it. I grew up on the rice cakes, miso soup and pickled plums she labored over for me and here I am hiding in the kitchen popping supplement pills as I scrape the language she’s crafted for me into the trash. I wish that this was something I could speak about in past tense but I’m very much still dealing with all of this, and it helps to put this issue into words and to post it online because people are supportive and reach out to me with experiences of their own. Thank you to all those reading this who have at some point reached out to me over the past year, I’m so damn grateful for y’all.

I’d like to talk more about your transparency online and your openness to share your struggles with a community of friends and strangers. Do you find exploring fears and doubts as well as your battle with gender dysphoria on public platforms has been beneficial?

It’s true, I’m shamelessly open online. I’m so bold and blunt online but in reality I’m actually quite shy, hence the username “shy__pup”. I post a lot of things that make me cringe the next day but people seem to appreciate the candid honesty so I keep doing it. How else are regular cis folks supposed to find out about the proper approach to handling a pre-op trans woman’s penis?

I think people feel awkward about saying they’ve met on social media, but it can be a great way to collaborate and reach out to others -to create communities and to feel less alone. I’m interested in your relationship to these platforms. How has it affected your practice as an artist and your personal orbit as a human?

I used to be pretty lonely. I’ve spent a majority of my life unable to relate to anyone. I attended a predominantly white all boy’s school in the countryside of England as a queer, biracial student. I didn’t have any friends to turn to who shared a similar reality to that of my own, let alone celebrities, politicians or leaders to look up to. My father was absent for most of my childhood due to work and my mother has fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair so I felt totally alone. I wrote my own pledge of allegiance in fact:

“I pledge allegiance to myself, to the United States of all my Vital Organs, and to the wholeness for which it stands, with health and happiness for me and those I care about, amen”

Documenting my feelings and experiences then posting them online has definitely allowed me to tap into various different communities with which I identify. A lot of people I’ve never met in person who follow me message me with experiences of their own and soothing words. I’m so thankful for it all. People of the older generation often complain about our obsession with social media and technology but don’t quite get how useful of a tool it can be to connect with others. It’s obviously a double edged sword but I feel it’s the case that we more than often focus on the negative aspects.

Do people ever reach out to you through these spaces to thank you or to empathize in anyway? Do you ever deal with negative or hate filled comments? I find technology can be both cathartic and all-consuming. Do you have advice for creating boundaries for something with such a powerful impact on our lives?

Thankfully I haven’t yet had to deal with negative or hate filled comments on my account. There was an incident where some of my images were disseminated amongst trans exclusionary radical feminists online and I was both mocked and vilified. I remember shaking with stress in my basement studio when the notifications began to go off because my inbox was being flooded with hateful comments. It took me a few hours to get a hold of myself and then I began to channel my fear into rage. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t ever be silenced. It gave my posts, however trivial, a purpose.

Finally, in regards to creating boundaries, I’m the last person to ask. There isn’t any clearly defined separation between the two realms. I’m very much the person you see online. I do however take selfies at strategically calculated angles with a lot of filters to maximize peak feminine appearance. Judging from the way I look online a lot of my viewers may be under the assumption that I’m usually correctly gendered in public but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Hopefully my followers reading this who are themselves in the process of transitioning don’t find themselves discouraged looking through my feed, it’s Photoshop I swear! Catch me outside on the street without filters, how about that? You will see for yourself, I guarantee. The process of transitioning is for life, I’m going to be popping pills right up to the day I die. It never really ends and changes happen over years not months. Hang in there, sister.

Top Image: Trans women sitting in a circle in the middle of the BMA sculpture gardens mid picnic.

Author Rosemary Liss is a Baltimore-based artist and thinker with a culinary mind.