April Sunami’s studio is an attic space full of windows and lots of pieces and parts. Each nook is full of potential tesserae for her mosaicked paintings. Our conversation about her impressive body of work felt like part studio visit and part treasure hunt as she searched to find examples of supplies. With a Master’s in Art History, April weaves together the past and the present in her depictions of women. Their faces are painted in a realistic style surrounded by highly patterned and abstracted veils or hair. Her works are a study in opposites: past and present, rough and smooth, abstraction and figuration, among others.
People familiar with your body of work instantly recognize your style? When did this theme surface in your work?
I’ve been doing this particular body of work for about eight years now. It began with one image of a woman with a stylized face and her hair was all abstracted and going upwards. Something drew me to this theme. When I started it was really this exploration of doing the hair. I was very inspired by Gustav Klimt, and still am. This theme has become a language for me to think about and do other things. Now it is a way to explore materials.
Do the figures represent specific women?
A series of portraits in 2008 were all named after African deities and queens. They weren’t meant to capture anyone’s likeness, but rather the essence of what they protected or stood for. Yemaya was over water. Songi was over wealth. I’ve always been attracted to Greek mythology and with this it was an exercise in capturing the essence of a broad thing such as water, childbirth, wealth. It was also a cultural thing. Everyone knows about Greek goddesses, but no one talks about or knows who the African goddesses are. It was my way of bringing attention and claiming them. I was exhuming those ladies from being buried.
What is the significance of the hair?
The mosaics are representative of hair or body coverings. It is kind of irrelevant if it is a stand in for hair. My preoccupation is combining two disparate elements: the figurative and the abstract. It is mainly hair, but it could be anything. I am attracted to opposites. The formalist elements of exploring pure aesthetics combined with the fact that I use black women as the figures also has some social connotations for me.
You studied Art History at Ohio University. How does your work relate to art history? Why is portraiture important to you?
Art history informs a lot of what I do. I bring that knowledge, but often my work is more intuitive than intellectual. Portraiture is important to me right now. What really speaks to me is the female face. I like doing portraits because it helps tell a story. It is something people can connect to and it’s what I connect to. There is something universal and timeless about the human figure. You see it in all cultures from the beginning of art history. It represents us and we are constantly creating our own image.
When did you start incorporating mixed media elements, like glass, paper and globs of paint paper to your works?
I started experimenting with mixed media in maybe 2008 or 2009. It first started out with incorporating broken automobile glass. I liked the effect of it, so I tried other things. It was about using materials I already had and that were pretty worthless. I figured out ways to make something beautiful out of something broken – junk basically.
Is there a significance in using broken glasses or dishes and making them whole again?
There is a certain element of disappointment when anything gets broken, but repurposing that for something that is aesthetically pleasing feels good.
This ties into your plan for Remnants, the upcoming CAW exhibition at the Urban Arts Space in May 2015. You have a little concept sketch hanging up. Can you describe the project?
This is just in the planning phase, so what may actually happen might be completely different. So far what I have conceptualized are three large paintings using glass and perhaps paper beads made from magazines. I want to incorporate this theme of urban shrines into the work. Urban shrines are something that I see often in my community. Where people have fallen prey to violence, friends and family try to commemorate that person by setting out a display or memorial of bottles. I would like to set up a small installation of bottles it in front of the central piece in this trinity of paintings. In addition [the painted figures] are meant to recall Mary, the Holy Mother. I would like the halo for the central piece to be bullets.
I value how you bridge seemingly disparate themes. You touched on figuration and abstraction, and in your Remnants piece you are bringing together devotion and destruction. What other themes do you see emerging in your new work in 2015?
I have been fascinated recently by sugar skulls. I had the opportunity to work with many Latino artists to construct a traditional cemetery and offer Katrina face paintings to patrons of High Ball last year. I was working with Global Gallery who received a national grant through NEA to incorporate Dia de los Muertos into the event. I was totally inspired by the whole aesthetic of the mash-up between Catholicism and indigenous culture, this cultural fusion of sorts. I hope to get out of the muted palette of last year. All of 2014 my paintings have been sad and blue. I am claiming 2015 as my festive, “go for it” year!
Visit aprilsunami.com to view more of April’s portfolio.