Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”
Edition 34—Sumeya Ali
“I have your self-portrait,” referring to the image of Sumeya Ali’s first painting at Artists For Humanity (AFH).
“Oh, the one with the milk mustache?” Ali laughed. I could sense her wit, infectious energy, and attention to detail, even through a computer screen.
As a creator in the SoWa Boston Art + Design District, Ali has dedicated herself to becoming fluent in the “visual language” of art, always learning, always growing.
I asked if blue was her favorite color, to which she answered, “Honestly, I think they wanted us to use black and white, so that was me trying to understand how to mix [the paint]. It was very funny because I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to paint anything!’”
Still, Ali was destined for this career. “When the pandemic happened, that’s kind of where my shift in thinking occurred,” she said. “There’s literally nothing else I would rather be doing full time than art.”
Ali admires process and thoughtful technique, the hallmarks of a talented artist with the skills and experience to be creative. To be original. To be bold.
Ali was a student at The John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. She found creative outlets outside the classroom to satisfy her artistic spirit. Coming from a working-class family, “I was largely doing poetry…that was more accessible for me than painting because I didn’t have to go and buy paint supplies,” Ali explained.
Despite her collection of short stories and pencil sketches, she never considered herself an artist. In fact, media propaganda that depicts “the whole idea that all artists are starving and broke” intimidated Ali to the point where she thought, “There’s no way I can make a living out of this.”
In her sophomore year, she wanted to be a teacher but didn’t know what kind. With Ali’s peers landing internships in the healthcare industry, the pressure to get a meaningful job increased. She sought guidance.
“One of my earliest memories is me sitting down writing stories and having the most imaginative scenarios and narratives.”
The artistic potential was inside of her, waiting to be unleashed. Curiosity steered Ali toward her high school’s career center, which eventually led her to the doors of AFH.
“I remember the exact song that was playing [in the Painting Studio], which was ‘Down on My Luck’ by Mensa,” she said.
“Ironic,” I commented.
Ali agreed, recalling precisely how lucky she felt to be there: “It was one of my favorite songs, so I thought, this must be meant to be or something!”
Several AFH mentors molded Ali into the person she is now. They taught her that the art profession entails getting paid to make what’s inside your head. “That’s really awesome, [but] I don’t mean to make it sound so easy. That’s also such a challenge in itself,” Ali admitted. AFH empowered her to overcome that challenge, step by step.
During Ali’s training, she once decided to paint a big 3'x4' canvas. “Okay, well, there's a process,” her Painting Studio mentor Free warned. “That’s fine. What’s the process?” Ali eagerly replied. Together, they made small demo paintings in preparation for the final product.
“In one of my sketchbooks that I still have there are little sketches where he drew a nose,” she elaborated. “First, he drew a triangle and then two circles on the side.” This helped her understand the technicalities of painting.
“I think one of the most important lessons that I’ve ever learned is that everything can be broken down into shapes.”
Ali draws inspiration from multiple sources: pain, daily conversations, and her East African roots. For several years, all of her paintings contained a special shade of orange. One autumn day, her friend sent her pictures of some leaves. ‘These trees are ‘Sumi orange,’” he said, “Which is my nickname,” Ali shared with a smile. Though her style has evolved, ‘Sumi orange’ uniquely captures her warmth and vibrancy at AFH.
Ali reminisced about her proudest moment at AFH: the first time she sold a painting. It was a piece titled ‘Sacred Gold’ that she worked on with Painting Studio mentor Aristotle Forrester. “In terms of mentors, he’s the one who really pushed me furthest to explore my abstract work,” Ali said.
“I had certain ideas that I thought would look cool, visually, and he was like, oh, that’s boring, or that’s been done before.” Rejection motivated Ali to problem solve creatively.
Simultaneously, his words of encouragement boosted her confidence as an abstract artist. “Around that time is when I stopped asking [others], ‘What do you think of this [painting]?’” She finds that answer by searching within.
To this day, Ali echoes the wisdom of her mentors. She studies the form and pattern behind pieces that genuinely excite her, thinking, “How can I replicate that same feeling in my own art?”
After the interview, I gained a newfound respect for Ali’s philosophy. Raw talent is only half the battle because a true artist combines tools and knowledge with the hard work ethic necessary to execute her vision.
While at AFH, Ali joined the Video & Motion Studio, which it was called at the time. She relished the chance to make her writing come to life on screen. The silly atmosphere, complete with spontaneous rap and dance battles, drove her to chase her budding passion for film.
Ali cited one memorable trip to Gillette Stadium, where her mentor Greg demonstrated how to set up equipment to document the event. “[In retrospect], if I was a videographer in the professional field now, this is definitely stuff I could put on my resume, and I’d be grateful for that,” Ali acknowledged.
But deep down, she wanted to produce more personal projects than client work. Ali enjoyed wandering the AFH building with a camera, recording music videos and short films for her entertainment. Fortunately, the mentors “had created an environment where we could feel comfortable enough to say that.” They granted her creative independence and the opportunity to speak freely.
“You can ask them the simplest questions like ‘Hey, how do I even press the start button?’”
Ali remained in the Video & Motion Studio for three months before returning to painting. The lessons and people she encountered along the way made the short-lived experience unforgettable.
Among Ali’s paintings in the AFH archive, one, in particular, caught my eye. Its cascading shapes and colors resemble a landscape of floating butterflies. The title, ‘New Light,’ also struck a chord as it’s the name of my favorite John Mayer song. Little did I know, he was Ali’s exact inspiration for the piece!
‘New Light’ is the concept of perceiving something differently, more positively than one did in the past. It represents her upward artistic journey. “That’s actually the last painting I did [in the Painting Studio],” Ali said. What better way to commemorate her time at AFH?
The following year, Ali attended Simmons University. Her sociology major allowed her to study society through the lens of systemic power and cultural structures. It gave Ali the language and vocabulary to challenge the status quo. Today, she carries on the mission of AFH to dismantle barriers in the art world by investing in local communities.
Outside the SoWa studio, Ali teaches classes and workshops at schools and nonprofit organizations about visual art and its intersection with activism. Her mentorship experience at AFH inherently influences her pedagogy. Ali believes that honesty and vulnerability empower artists to address topics like identity and representation.
“I’m not so much focused on the outcome. I’m focused on the process and on my students leaving and feeling more whole.”
“[If not for AFH], I don’t think I would’ve looked at art as seriously as I do now,” she said. The community left its lifelong impact, widening her perspective beyond imagination.
Ali puts it as “that idea of being limitless and having full creative freedom over your own life.” Her story raises hope for future generations of teen artists.
“Being so young, having those skills, and just having access to that kind of space really shifted my outlook — what’s possible, what isn’t, and how do we get more spaces like AFH around the world?”
Written by Simran Patel.
To learn more about Sumeya Ali (she/they), visit sumicollective.com.