Content Warning: sexual assault
Gisela McDaniel grew up in predominantly white spaces: She was born on a military base in Bellevue, Neb., to a Chamorro mother who was a sociology professor teaching race and ethnicity and a white father enlisted in the Navy. On a recent Monday afternoon, the Art & Design alum spoke about how being raised with a pervasive awareness of her Indigenous heritage transformed her approach to painting.
Rather than becoming fixated on the crosscurrents of the art world and its western preference for flattening its subjects into fetishized objects of beauty, McDaniel said she has always seen her artistic process as an opportunity to break the silence and amplify marginalized stories.
McDaniel said that from the moment she started creating, she reformulated color as a place where a body in exile could emerge while talking back to the viewer.
“I really don’t like to focus on the violence in these stories because I think that’s done enough,” she said in an interview with The Daily. “Especially in art, we see these violent moments painted but it’s not about that. What I’m so interested in is how people move forward and how people are resilient through these events.”
McDaniel says she first used the language of art to articulate and anatomize her life experiences. This extends all the way back to her girlhood in Cleveland, Ohio, where she says she “struggled with language growing up.”
“The words would kind of get stuck,” she told me.
And yet, from the first moment that McDaniel began tracing her own form as a child — she described this seminal self-portrait as “strangely accurate” — her mother perceived a shimmering talent. Art, she told me, was her first form of communication.
McDaniel took studio art classes in high school, initially focusing on figure drawing. She said she chose the University of Michigan for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art & Design in 2014 because she preferred the idea of a research university setting. More than anything, she said, she yearned for the intellectual space to examine what she was making her work about.
McDaniel’s examination of herself through her work would eventually serve to transform a pivotal, painful point in her life in a different direction — when she was a sophomore studying abroad, she was sexually assaulted and, in the aftermath of the event, she struggled to paint.
“It was the first time I couldn’t paint for months after it happened. (It) took my form of communication away,” she told me.
Gradually, however, her work became a mode through which she could make unspeakable stories legible again. She says that it was the artistic process that emerged from the event, and not the event itself, that was pivotal.
Speaking through the paint
McDaniel says her current process arose from social interactions within the Detroit community, where she moved shortly after her assault. She began making figure drawings of friends and acquaintances who chose to share their own stories of sexual assault. She also started maintaining the audio footage of her subjects’ stories.
“I’m really interested in creating these portals where (my subjects) can speak through,” McDaniel said. “I had a sensor embedded in the surface of the painting. And when you stepped within like three feet, (the painting) would talk to you. So the story would start to speak. You can’t enter the personal space of the painting without hearing that sound, or hearing that person’s voice or their story.”
In this, she seemed to say that healing defies codification and 2D spaces. “You go in your cocoon, and you become something else,” she said, referring to the forms of personal growth that can emerge from wrenching experiences.
From there, we talked about how the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign has raised awareness of elevated rates of sexual violence against Indigenous Women and how much more prevention is needed. On the island of Guam, where McDaniel’s family is from, the problem has reached astonishingly high levels: There are 62.4 reported sexual assaults for every 100,000 people, while the national average hovers around 25.2 per 100,000.
“To be able to talk about these things, and for it to not be scary or sad or for it to be trauma porn but, for it to just be (about how) this happens to so many of us,” she explained. “It’s almost not even our responsibility anymore, and that’s why I put the audio in.”
She said that rather than prioritizing personal achievements, she chooses to put her community first by recording intergenerational stories and starting conversations. For example, she described the process of painting a friend whose family is Navajo. The friend had grown up with her mother and grandmother on the reservation but had recently left to work with a Catholic missionary in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The grandmother, the daughter and the granddaughter came up and we had a three-generation conversation because they wanted to record their story,” she said. “I guess that’s a really clear example of … how urgent it is to make sure we don’t lose our histories.”
Reclaiming the palette
When McDaniel was at the University, a professor compared the palette she uses to Paul Gauguin, a French Post-Impressionist painter. This inspired her to delve into the history behind his work, and after learning more about the problematic and sometimes non-consensual ways he interacted with his oftentimes female subjects, Gauguin’s memory did not sit right with her.
“(Knowing) how he interacted with women and Tahiti, and that he had married a 13-year-old girl, and like gave all these people diseases and all these things. There’s so much lack of consent in his process,” she said. “People are attracted to the colors … but it doesn’t feel like they were his to paint.”
Seeing Gauguin’s fetishization of Pacific Islanders inspired McDaniel to turn the process and portrayal of painting portraits on its head. She told me that this is in large part a response to how colonialism has inflicted ongoing damage on her family’s home country of Guam.
“In Guam right now, there is a military base on the north of the island, and they’re currently trying to build this firing range over all of our sacred lands that used to be our family’s land,” she said.
In response to this, her art becomes her protest. For McDaniel, part of this protest comes from objects selected by her subjects that clue us in to their life’s story. McDaniel told me that the objects are often pieces of jewelry passed down through matrilineal lines, even sometimes coming from other subjects who have donated jewelry to her studio in Detroit. These objects and the stories they represent infiltrate her paintings.
“There’s always something in the work that is giving you hints about who this person is,” she said. “And that person might be the only person who knows that story too … But it means something for them, to be able to look at it and be able to recall that memory because that’s in history now.”
In a way, the voices of subjects who are portrayed in McDaniel’s work fuse with paint on the canvas to become an enduring hybrid language.
As I looked at McDaniel’s paintings, and the objects in them, I felt her subjects were transported into my apartment through another language running between the avenues of my heart. I became enraptured by the object’s rivulets of color and texture. It felt like heat seeping into my room. It felt electric.
I estimate that I received the equivalent of several college lectures in no less than one afternoon from McDaniel. As a riveting, unequivocal intellectual in her own right, her approach to language, history and violence leave me feeling as if she is a gift from the future — spilling over with what will be possible tomorrow.
McDaniel is currently in a group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit called “Dual Visions,” and will soon be presenting work in another Midwest exhibition titled “The Regional,” opening at MOCA Cleveland and the Contemporary Art Space in Cincinnati. Finally, she will be having a solo exhibition with Pilar Corrias in London in the fall, with a date to be confirmed later this week.
Author’s note: The fight for Indigenous land and water in Guam, referred to by McDaniel in this article, is known as Prutehi Litekyan.
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at [email protected].