Charlene Komuntale on storytelling, femininity and painting the 'strength and beauty of black women'

White Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

White Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

In her two most recent series, Not Fragile and No Fake News, the Kampala-born artist thrashes the patriarchal view of women.

Charlene Komuntale is a storyteller through and through. Until earlier this year, the Kampala-born artist would apply her narrative-based skills to portraiture and illustration, depicting realistic subjects on commission for individuals and businesses alike. Then, in February, her process evolved as she was offered an art residency called Silhouette Projects in her hometown.

"Those three months changed everything for me," she tells Creative Boom. "I got to separate myself from the busyness of commissions and find my visual voice." As well as being represented by Afriart Gallery in Uganda, Charlene now creates paintings with a subject matter she identifies with: "I get to visually depict the strength and beauty of black women."

Yellow Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Yellow Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Autumn Dresses, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Autumn Dresses, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

In her most recent body of work – two series-in-progress named Not Fragile and No Fake News – Charlene has elevated this subject matter into a collection of figurative paintings. Within the series, she draws from her own experiences and those around her, portraying the tenderness and strength of black African women. Refreshingly direct and poetic, what's interesting is how each of her subjects' faces is shielded by an object, a cardboard box, which has "not fragile" stamped in bold red tape. An intentional move, Charlene aims to trash the stereotypical depiction of women in art, which has, for too long, been dominated by the male gaze.

The Not Fragile series is inspired by the book entitled Saving Truth: Finding Meaning in A Post-Truth World by Abu Murray. "It brought to my attention how in many ways, we have chosen to act based on our subjective feelings over objective truth," she explains of the project's roots. "When I reflected on that, I realised that in my community and throughout my life, because of fear of man, ignorance and the choice to be silent, I had perpetuated falsehoods onto myself and other black women. Each painting feels like a painting of amends. Watching and listening to the women in my family and community be resilient despite the realities of the broken world is truly inspiring."

Green Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Green Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Lemonade Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Lemonade Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

In one image named Red Dress, which was painted this year, Charlene has detailed a woman sitting upright at a chair; she's adorned in a deep red dress, fingertips painted to perfection. This piece is what she describes as her "breakthrough painting," she says. "I had the vocal language and the concept down, and it took me a while before it came together visually. What pushes the unapologetic Not Fragile message on the box forward is her poise, grace and her manicured hands." The latter is a poignant element, where some viewers (her sister's colleagues) have responded stating that the woman was "fragile" and "not woman enough" because of her nails. "And that's not true," adds Charlene. "This painting should be seen as a resistance figure to patriarchal thinking."

Royal Dresses is another favourite of the artist's, and this time we're seeing two subjects enjoying an intimate embrace together. Charlene adds that it "contradicts the angry black woman narrative portrayed by the media", while the subtler details – like the DNA structure on the dress – alludes to the black woman's nature of "nurture, to give, to be present and to love". All of which does not equal weakness or fragility.

"The embrace feels real and warm. And even its name isn't based on the colour of the dress. The name says black women are queens. The Royals in Africa and I think worldwide, have a strict code of conduct; they can't show too much emotion in public spaces. In my tribe, in particular, I know they can't laugh too hard or be seen crying, yet it's human to cry and laugh. It should never be seen as a weakness. This painting is my way of redefining what it means to be royalty."

Royal Dresses, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Royal Dresses, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Purple Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Purple Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Charlene's work is visually and conceptually invigorating. She addresses important topics of femininity and empowerment, showing the mighty strength of women – black women – through her carefully composed paintings. This is emphasised by Charlene's surrealistic style, choosing to consciously cover and pull attention away from the women's faces.

"I would like for my audience, especially black women, to see themselves in my work as I do and that there is beauty and strength in femininity. This also explains why I use a surrealism style of covering the subject's face with a box. I don't want the viewer to get lost in facial features or who she looked like but to see the truth in the message and themselves. The concept in each painting is to break post-truth, patriarchal narrates shaped by culture, religion and politics. The unapologetic message on the open box is an announcement of the state of mind of the black woman."

Red Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale

Red Dress, 2021 © Charlene Komuntale