Politics, pollution and more surface in water-themed art exhibit

In ‘Water Is Life,’ curated by April Sunami and opening Friday at the Cultural Arts Center, a dozen Columbus artists deliver their interpretation of the theme.
A large-scale work by Catherine Bell Smith on display in "Water Is Life"
A large-scale work by Catherine Bell Smith on display in "Water Is Life"Andy Downing

When presented with a water theme for a new exhibit, artist April Sunami first thought of the protesters who rallied against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota beginning in 2016.

“And it got me thinking about water protectors, and that deep, spiritual significance of water in [Indigenous] culture,” said Sunami, who curated the new exhibit “Water Is Life,” which opens downtown at the Cultural Arts Center on Friday, June 2. (The exhibit is presented in collaboration with Global Water Dances Columbus and poet Dionne Custer Edwards will read as part of the opening, which kicks off at 6 p.m.) “And then that got me thinking of my own culture, and the importance of water in the African diaspora. … The east and west coast of Africa are very connected to water. Fishing is a livelihood, a lifeline. And the people swim. They're bonded to the water in these different ways.”

This eventually led Sunami to consider her own history with water, having been taught to swim by her mother, who was taught by her mother as a child growing up in inner-city Cincinnati. “And in turn, I’m teaching my kids how to swim,” she said. “And that’s how knowledge is passed on.”

In “Water Is Life,” a dozen Columbus artists delivered their own interpretation of the theme. Some addressed specific concerns, such as Katerina Armeria Fuller, who contributed a pair of paintings inspired by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and featuring women clothed in dresses that mirror topographic maps. “Think about that, for years having to use bottled water,” Sunami said. “Not knowing how it’s going to happen with the kids."

Other pieces take a more abstract approach. Lisa McClymont, perhaps best known for her portrait work, crafted a blue fabric wall hanging interwoven with metal and dotted with galactic constellations, while Dana Lynn Harper anchored a flowing tapestry to a pair of playful, cloud-like sculptures that are embedded with gems and serve as a grounding point for the piece.

“It was an experiment, of sorts, to see what the artists could come up with,” Sunami said. “I knew there would be some political statements, for sure, because access to water – to clean water – has become a political issue. … But these were artists I knew, and I knew their style, and I wanted to see how they would translate what they do into [the theme].”

Some artists took a more global view – one intricately detailed colored pencil drawing by Kay Onwukwe is rooted in the Middle Passage, depicting slave ships sailing the vast ocean between the United States and Africa – while others stayed closer to home. For his installation, Rob Jones created a pair of sculptural assemblages with found materials dredged from the Scioto and Olentangy rivers (cassette tapes, soda cans, license plates, etc.). On a pedestal beneath each sculpture sits a mason jar filled with water collected from each river.

While the pieces draw on a wide range of inspirations, blues dominate the color palette, appearing in the aforementioned wall hangings and in a trio of paintings by Gaye Reissland, all of which project a sense of serenity and femininity. One notable exception is a large work by Catherine Bell Smith, who shaped what appear to be reeds into watery swirls and then interlaced these "currents" with woven plastic – a commentary on the plastics that pollute our oceans and waterways. “She’s using these recycled bags and copper circles,” Sunami said, and paused. “I can just get lost in this.” 

The same could be said of the exhibit as a whole.

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