Interview: Christian Noelle Charles

The Glasgow based American artist's Art Festival exhibition is set in the unique context of a salon installation. She tells mandla rae about her intentions for this work through the Black feminine lens

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
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Christian Noelle Charles
Photo by Matthew Arthur Williams
Published 08 Aug 2023

Christian Noelle Charles has an enigmatic warm energy that makes one feel like you’ve known each other through several lifetimes. Our conversation reminds me of the Black women I share smiles and compliments with on the streets, I feel that almost instant sense of community or knowing with her.

Charles had an upbringing that intrigues me; she was introduced to art and creativity through her parents in Syracuse, upstate New York. Her mother ran a dance studio so from an early age Christian was taking "eight dance classes a week – heavily influenced by Alvin Ailey’s techniques." Her father was a radio DJ who now teaches Broadcasting and African American Music.

It’s easy to see how Charles went down the visual art route in her practice; her mother also worked as an Arts Manager, Curator and Grant Writer – Charles has been familiar with the work of artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Faith Ringgold from an early age. I slightly envy such a creative upbringing but, I am mostly thrilled for Charles – becoming an artist was a visible possibility for her from day one, as opposed to an upbringing where the arts and creativity don’t seem open or accessible for people who look like her. Becoming an artist isn’t something she’s had to justify to her parents – creativity runs through her bloodstream.

Christian Noelle Charles GESTURE I screenprint 2023

Her exhibition at the Edinburgh Art Festival: WHAT A FEELING | ACT 1 – which runs until 17 September at Edinburgh Printmakers – takes its title from the iconic song by Irene Cara featured in the movie Flashdance! The work is an attempt to show gratitude to the Black women artists, such as Cass Ezeji and Alberta Whittle who she’s built community with in a predominantly white country since moving to Glasgow from the United States seven years ago. She has immortalised them in her print work. During our conversation, Charles also acknowledges and expresses gratitude to the staff at Printmakers who have worked with her over the past year and a half to bring the exhibition to life. I shared in her excitement about the possibilities Edinburgh as a city creates, the doors it opens for artists to make and present on an international scale.

The exhibition space itself simulates the Beauty Salon or dressing room, where Black women are “in our space, in our bodies and cultivating self-care.” It’s called ACT 1 because it’s the first part in a series. As Charles explains, it’s “the sense of getting ready, preparing for yourself or for something big. Each screen-print is a portrait of someone getting ready but it’s also a window of opportunity, based off the structures of Black feminine contexts and challenging the status quo of how Black women always have to work hard and present themselves in a certain way or work twice as hard just to get half as far.”

Community and togetherness are integral to Charles as a person as well as an artist and it’s in this spirit that she’s throwing a Backyard BBQ – American block party style on 25 August in the Printmakers Gallery Courtyard, with a Nigerian barbecue catered and DJ sets from Junglehussi, Mojxmma and Edinburgh Art Festival Board Member, presenter, and writer Gemma Cairney. With this event, Charles hopes to switch up the idea of “what it looks like to gather in an arts context." Instead, she wants it “to feel more like a family reunion” so all are invited to get fed, dance with her and buy a print – Charles wants all her artworks to find loving homes.

Christian Noelle Charles: WHAT A FEELING! | ACT I, Edinburgh Printmakers, 28 Jul-17 Sep (not Mondays), 10am-6pm