In 2011 Visual artist Heidi Kumao broke her back while sledding. During the slow convalescence, Kumao spent many hours lying on her sofa staring up at the ceiling. She describes it as like being “Underwater looking up at a layer of ice.“
Her film, Swallowed Whole, which was featured in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Black Maria Film Festival, Tricky Women International Animation Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival and just won Best Experimental Film at the 13th Annual Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto is a wonderfully evocative portrayal of this personal calamity.
Kumao employs striking images and interesting techniques in her filmmaking. For instance, at one point, she makes the film frames thwack down like the lenses in an ophthalmologist’s phoropter to emulate the crashing down to the ground of her airborne sled.
She uses stacks of books, cookies and lifesavers to recreate the impact and shattering of vertebrae, and later on, melted ice cubes. These ordinary items are amusing and very effective stand-ins, adding a breath of fresh air to this grave and beautiful film.
The final shot—taken in the Arctic Circle—features Kumao standing on an ice floe, a lone, fragile figure in this inhospitable and awe-inspiring landscape. It’s a humbling and haunting image.
Egress, inspired by Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, is another compelling film by Kumao. It’s actually a gallery installation as it includes a blank book-shaped stack positioned to one side. Images are projected on the books so they appear as if bound in gold tooled Moroccan leather and subsequently, the Iranian flag effectively signaling the change from valued literature to government approved tomes. In the film, chador-clad women circle around the stack, like moths to a flame. Indeed, the billowing of the chador’s material becomes the fluttering of butterfly/wings. A giant hand, holding a pin hovers and then stabs a butterfly woman pinning her to the wall. But there is a hopeful ending as a woman struggles up a tower to fly a kite, the giant hand returns with giant scissors. They aim for the kite string but somehow manage to cut the dreary smog laden background, which swings open like a squeaky door to reveal a beautiful cerulean sky. It’s a gem of a film: poetic, moving and profound
In her studio Kumao is working with the film snippets she makes and keeps on her computer. To help organize the clips, she sketches images on index cards, which makes it easy to arrange in the order she wants. One wall of her studio was covered with an arrangement of these cards. While they were really just a guide, they provided a striking collage of her personal language of hieroglyphics.
Kumao was also working on two mechanical sculptures that emulate the movement of a little girl’s legs and feet. One set of “legs” stamped its foot, the other seemed to belong to a child lying on the floor pushing its legs back and forth in the throes of a tantrum. The “legs “ were plain metal struts, what made the anthropomorphizing so effective was the addition of vintage mary janes, which also added a whiff of creepiness.
Kumao’s work showcases her easy and consummate command of her media. It has elegance and gravitas and also these moments of sly humor that add a refreshing lightness to the work. heidikumao.net