'She Knows Who She Is' opens at the King Arts Complex on Thursday

UPDATE: Due to coronavirus concerns, the opening of "She Knows Who She Is" has been pushed back to April 16.

April Sunami started painting exclusively black women because in studying art history, she rarely saw anyone who looked like her represented on canvas.

“That’s really the nucleus of all that I do,” said Sunami, who joined fellow artist David Butler for an early March interview at the King Arts Complex, where the two will host duo show “She Knows Who She Is,” beginning with an opening reception on Thursday, March 12 (the exhibit, which includes more than 30 works of portraiture, runs through May 16). “For me, a lot of the work is kind of about excavating these stories that don’t get a lot of attention, that have been excluded, and just looking into the history of [people like] African queens. Then there’s another, personal component [with this show] that I’d never gotten into, where I really wanted to dig into familial connections.”

One large painting titled “You Belong to the Stars” features Sunami’s two children depicted as African royalty, one of the two capped by a gold crown that pops off the midnight-black canvas as brilliantly as a full moon in a clear night sky. (Sunami often starts her paintings by covering the canvas in black — the artist’s attempt to upend the notion that every painting originates from a white canvas.) Several of the paintings are embedded with crystals and shells, and the acrylic paint is applied in thick layers and sometimes shaped into swirling, galactic patterns that give the canvases further interest.

“Apart from the subject matter, the other part, for me, is exploring texture, exploring material, and finding the significance of the materials,” said Sunami, who incorporated cowrie shells into a handful of works to symbolize “the continuity of culture.” “Growing up and not knowing any better, I had this idea that black people here in this country didn’t really bring their culture, their history, their music, their belief systems with them [from Africa]. Being older and learning more, having studied, I know that is completely false. Black people have been here and retained their culture. … And these cowrie shells represent that continuity.”

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Both Sunami and Butler have filled the show with paintings of women culled from their daily lives, often recasting them as historical figures (such as Harriet Tubman) or as ancient African royals. The effect is twofold, placing modern women within a strong historical lineage, while also acknowledging that many of the past battles continue, both in terms of representation and even for outright survival. Collectively, though, the paintings all depict a shared strength and beauty, as well as an indefatigable sense of will.

“I didn’t want to show a lot of hardship. I painted a warrior, and she has scars on her face, but she’s not in pain. She’s staring at you like, ‘So what? I got scars. I’ve got blood on my sword,’” said Butler, who modeled one painting on his grandmother. “For this show, I really thought about women [in my life] who take up space dominantly, who are unapologetic about how they exist. These are people who assert themselves in a certain way like these warriors had to, and like these women of the past had to. It’s like this lineage of power that illuminates from somebody’s spirit, and I tried to capture that.”

“These are all active subjects, not passive objects, and that’s the core of my entire history, my entire body of work. I’m interested in portraying real female subjects with agency and power and strength. Subjects who are not rooted in trauma,” Sunami said. “Part of the power I get from being an artist is that I feel like black women are always operating in a state of invisibility. … Through art, through my paintings, and through the fact I solely focus on women, I get to take on all of these characteristics that I normally don’t have. I’m a quiet, introverted person, but in portraying all of these other women, I get to live. I get to take up space. That’s the beauty of being an artist: I get to not be invisible.”