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In Columbus, April Sunami’s Portraits Honor Creative Women of Color

by Kate Mothes

A mixed media artwork of a woman with blue skin with hair made up of various shells, seeds, and other found objects.
Photo Credit: Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center
"Songi II" in April Sunami's "I Am Because You/We Are" exhibition at the McConnell Arts Center.

A mixed-media celebration of art and family at the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center.

One of the things April Sunami enjoys most about being an artist is the ability to spark a dialogue or experience for viewers. In a way, each piece is like the start of a conversation. “Other people, they bring or they’re informed by their own experiences, and they add on extra layers of meaning by bringing their interpretation to the work, so that’s always really cool,” Sunami says. 

The artist uses materials like shells, beads, and other decorative objects that swirl around portraits of confident subjects in dreamlike settings. Resin holds the pieces together, adding depth and gloss.

Sunami’s recent exhibition I Am Because You/We Are, was hosted by the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center (MAC) in Columbus, Ohio. Pieces were inspired by the artist’s community, especially the role that her mother and other influential women have played in shaping her into the person and artist she is today.

A crowd of people in an art gallery standing around a person of dark skin giving a talk.
Photo Credit: Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center
Artist April Sunami leads a guided gallery tour through her exhibit “I Am Because You/We Are” in the McConnell Arts Center.

Creating Through Collaboration 

Part solo show and part curatorial endeavor, the exhibition combines Sunami’s poignant mixed-media works with pieces made by members of a local art collective called Creative Women of Color.

The collective was fairly small when Sunami first joined, and she describes it as “kind of like a salon. A handful of us would get together and rotate at each other’s homes and talk about art and what we were working on.” Over time, it became more formal, and the group organized events like exhibitions and talks. 

“In that collective, I really started to find my voice as an artist,” says Sunami. “So, it felt right to have their work as a part of the show.”

In addition to the exhibition, Sunami presented a free resin workshop. With support from Arts Midwest’s GIG Fund, the workshop was among a series of events that enabled people to participate in the event and work with the materials for free, boosting the MAC’s commitment to accessibility.

The MAC focuses on showcasing the work of living, Columbus-based artists in its gallery. Michelle Tavenner, who joined the organization as director of programming in Autumn 2021, jumped right in to set up a show with Sunami. 

“They had had just two artists programmed for moving forward,” she says. “So one of the first things I needed to do was to start scheduling some artists. In the first month that I started my position, I had numerous people telling me you have to get April Sunami. I saw April’s work, and I was mesmerized by it.”

When Tavenner met Sunami, ideas flowed from the get-go. Sunami already had some thoughts about the body of work she’d like to exhibit, and over time, the project evolved into a collaborative and multifaceted presentation.

The Women Who Make Us Who We Are

“For the show, I landed on this term, ‘I am because you are.’ It really stuck out to me,” Sunami says about how the title of the show emerged. “It was something really personal—something I actually had said to my mother in the last days of her life… Everything I am is because of this woman. And then if I look at it, everything is because of all of the women—all women in my family.”

The phrase “I am because you/we are” is also traced to a powerful pan-African philosophy summed up in the Bantu word Ubuntu, emphasizing the interconnectedness of individuals within a society and an understanding of humanity as a collective. 

Asked why presenting this show was important for the community of Columbus, Sunami pointed to a text she got recently from a friend who was grappling with the significance of art.

“We live in these really difficult times. Being an artist, is it important what we do?” Sunami asks, but the answer is clear: “Yes, yes, it is! It’s what I tell myself all the time. Art is always on the forefront of cultural shifts and cultural changes. And I think this exhibition is also a part of that.”

At the core of Sunami’s show is honor and respect for those who have been pivotal in the artist’s own life. At the same time, it also highlights her approach to support networks, the local community, and inspiring the next generation.

“I feel like it’s so important for the community to see this work by primarily Black women artists,” she says, “I want everybody to see themselves or see something they can relate to, and really just have a moment to connect with each other’s humanity in this work. That’s the most important thing to do right now.”

April Sunami’s exhibit at the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center was made possible in part by the GIG Fund. The GIG Fund provides flexible grants for nonprofit organizations to support programs and activities featuring professional artists.

The GIG Fund is a program of Arts Midwest that is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional contributions from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, North Dakota Council on the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, South Dakota Arts Council, and Wisconsin Arts Board.