April Sunami explores generational connections in new exhibit

With ‘I Am Because You/We Are,’ which opens at the McConnell Arts Center on Thursday, Jan. 11, the Columbus artist pays homage to her late mother while also looking toward the future.
April Sunami
April SunamiEmma Parker Photography

Artist April Sunami navigated a heavy heart while finishing work for “New People,” an exhibit held at Sherrie Gallerie in April 2022, having lost her mother, Mary, in February of that year.

And yet, even amid the relentless swirl of grief, Sunami attempted to focus her creative energies on hope. “Everything was so heavy, so I was trying to look for what was on the other side of that,” the artist said at the time.

Nearly two years later, Sunami is still working through the heavy emotions brought about by her mother’s death, with her memories of the elder forming the heart of new exhibit “I Am Because You/We Are,” which opens at the McConnell Arts Center on Thursday, Jan. 11.

As with “New People,” though, the artist made a conscious decision not to wallow, creating works that celebrate her mother’s impact but also expand to explore how her family branches entwine, with pieces that feature aunts and uncles resting alongside depictions of Sunami’s children. Additionally, Sunami invited members of Creative Women of Color to contribute works that line the hallways of the McConnell – a nod to the artistic family that years back helped her to find her place, and which continues to serve as a source of inspiration even now.

“I’m starting to really think of the idea of Sankofa, where in order to understand your future, you have to understand your past,” Sunami said in an early January interview at the McConnell. “It’s become this very full-circle situation, where I’m talking about my mother and my aunts and all of these people that came before me. And then I really started to focus on my kids, because they’re what’s next. … That’s something I’ve become preoccupied with: What does the future look like?”

"Songi II" by April Sunami
"Songi II" by April SunamiCourtesy McConnell Arts Center

The future and the past comingle in the main gallery space, which includes celestial portraits of Sunami’s children, Ella and River, but also a photo wall in which the artist applies her style to the type of photo arrangement one might encounter in a favorite grandmother’s home – something Sunami was initially loathe to attempt. “Let me put this out there: I hate photo collages, and I hate looking at people’s photo books,” Sunami said, and laughed. “I’ve always thought they were cheesy, to be honest. But I guess I’ve changed my mind.”

Owing to this shift in perspective, the south wall of the main gallery now features a Sunami family collage, with portraits of the artist’s mother, father and children included alongside other relatives. The artist described the assemblage as another means of exploring the connection that exists between generations, bonding her not only with her mother but alsp those who came long before. 

“So, it really becomes about me and who I am. And then also how my kids fit into this larger picture,” Sunami said. “It makes me think of that Beyonce song (‘Bigger’). We’re all part of something much bigger. We're all part of this tapestry.”

The portrait wall also includes a few embedded Easter eggs, including a small swatch of fabric that Sunami grew up despising but has since come to cherish, recalling how her mother utilized it throughout her kitchen, sewing it into curtains and using it to reupholster the seats in a breakfast nook. A number of the paintings also incorporate flowers – an homage to the love of gardening shared by mother and daughter, who remain connected in the way they use their hands as tools for creation. 

“She was a gardener, and that’s still one of the ways I feel most connected to her, digging around in the dirt,” said Sunami, directing me toward one portrait of her mother where flowers serve as an anchoring point, the painting gradually becoming dreamier and more spectral as your eyes drift upward. “It was surprisingly emotional putting this [photo collage] together. I thought I had womaned up and gotten all the tears out of my system. And I had not. … This is really my tribute to her. I think that I owed her something.”

Sunami said she approached this current exhibit as though it were her last, which meant pushing herself to try new things, including creating her first video installation. In the short film, which played on a loop as we talked, Sunami cooks collard greens and treks to a hiking trail in Yellow Springs – slice of life moments that form a love letter, of sorts, to the artist’s family.

These more personal turns have left the artist feeling vulnerable moving toward the opening. “My work is usually about larger systems, society, history, mythology – all of these things – but this one really sits at home,” said Sunami, who even invited her father and siblings to Thursday's kick-off, something she has shied from doing in the past. “When I’m at an exhibit, it feels like I’m at work, and when my relatives get together it becomes something different. … But it was funny, because over the holiday one of my sisters was over with us at my dad’s, and she said, ‘Dad, go ahead and pick out your outfit now. We’re going to Columbus.’”

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