April Sunami continues to let the spirit be her guide

The artist’s latest show, ‘New People,’ opens at Sherrie Gallerie on Saturday, April 2

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
One of April Sunami's paintings in 'New People'

Artist April Sunami said she started work on a new series of paintings in 2021 with a clear idea of what she hoped to accomplish. Homing in on the title “New People,” Sunami envisioned pieces that were both spiritual and aspirational in nature, capturing a sense of optimism and a positive energy that had been lacking amid the relentless, depressive churn of the last couple of years.

“It was supposed to represent this spiritual growth, and this feeling of promise and hope,” Sunami said recently from her Blockfort studio, where she was in the process of packing up the paintings for the exhibit at Sherrie Gallerie, which opens on Saturday, April 2. “Everything was so heavy, so I was trying to look for what was on the other side of that.”

To capture the mood, Sunami started amassing crystals, noting their longstanding usage in spiritual practices, along with glass fragments, white stones and scattered gems — items she intended to use to accentuate and give texture to her eye-catching portraits, all of which feature strong, beautiful Black women. “I’m interested in portraying real female subjects with agency and power and strength,” Sunami said in a 2020 interview with Alive. “Subjects who are not rooted in trauma.”

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But as Sunami worked on the pieces, the tone of the work started to shift in subtle ways, informed first by a late December trip to Senegal, Africa, and later by the February death of her mother, Mary. Gradually, the early, more ethereal color palette gave way to earth tones and water imagery, while the background of at least one painting built around a galactic swirl of planets and celestial bodies in the night sky — a direction born of the larger questions that began to stir within the artist.

“It was the cosmos, the afterlife,” Sunami said. “It was asking, ‘What does life look like beyond this earthly plane of existence?’ I was thinking about more spiritual realms.”

Some of those earthier tones that surfaced, in turn, can be traced to Sunami’s trek to Africa — her first — where she experienced both unbridled joy (“Stepping out of the airport was like being bathed in warm sunlight") but also the heaviness of the past. “We visited two slave ports when we were there, and I can’t even begin to put the emotional whirlwind that was into words, to set foot on the site of trauma,” Sunami said. “I was telling a friend this, but I’m a very insular person, and when I get to places, I can always feel the energy of a place. And I felt it there.”

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Back in Columbus, Sunami leaned into her reclusive nature, spending hours stowed away at Blockfort, working on pieces with an eye on the show at Sherrie Gallery, yes, but also because the painting served as a way to begin to sort through months of societal and personal tragedy, events that started to bleed into her canvasses in ways the artist still hasn’t fully processed.

“I was in here grieving, making all of these pieces, and it was the most beautiful, healing thing,” Sunami said. “Honestly, it helped me get through. I couldn’t imagine if I didn’t have this. … Whenever I’m painting, it’s deeper than just making work. It’s my subconscious trying to work out stuff. And I feel like I was processing a lot, even if I don’t know what all of it is yet. It’s one of those things that is always revealed to me later.”

Indeed, while the paintings that will be on display at Sherrie Gallerie are finished and had largely been packaged for transport at the time of our interview in late March, Sunami said her current creative boom had yet to wane, tracing the continued burst to the accumulated experiences of recent months still in need of untangling and deeper interrogation. 

“I don’t think I’m done,” Sunami said. “I’m just going to let my intuition and the spirit continue to guide me.”