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The Power of a Paintbrush: Gisela McDaniel Transforms Trauma into Art

July 1, 2021

Gisela McDaniel examines trauma through exquisite portraits

B Jamie Ludwig

Photography by Rebecca Simonov 

Imagine a painting of yourself inspired by the most vulnerable and challenging moment of your life: Would it center solely on the pain you endured, or honor the dignity and strength that carried you through the turbulence? Gisela McDaniel chooses the latter. The Detroit artist confronts ugly concepts — sexual violence, racism, and colonialism — through exquisite portraits, primarily of women and non-binary people who identify as indigenous, multiracial, immigrant or of color.

Gisela McDaniel

McDaniel, 26, only held her first solo art exhibition in 2019, but in the short time since her official debut — hosted at Playground Detroit — she’s become a rising star in the art world, both locally and beyond Detroit. She currently works out of a studio in New Center, and her paintings grace galleries in London; public spaces in Los Angeles; even the walls of former Walt Disney president Michael Ovitz, who recently bought one of her pieces.

The themes McDaniel is drawn to in her art are closely tied to her own experiences. She was born on a military base in Nebraska and grew up in Cleveland, the daughter of a white father and Chamorro mother, a professor specializing in race and ethnicity studies. (Chamorros are the Indigenous population of the Mariana Islands, including her mother’s native Guam, a U.S. territory.) “[The U.S. government] is taking our land right now for military buildup,” says McDaniel, whose family maintains a close connection with Guam. “They’re bulldozing ancient burial sites, and they’re putting something over one of the freshwater aquifers that gives the island 80% of its fresh water. My grandparents drank from that.”

Gisela McDaniel

Gisela McDaniel

An introverted child, McDaniel found her passion for art at a young age, and eventually enrolled in a BFA program at the University of Michigan. “I wanted to do more than ‘just art,’’’ she says. “It was nice to be at a research university where I could take all the classes I was intrigued by.”

A turning point came during McDaniel’s junior year, when she was sexually assaulted while studying abroad. “I’d had experiences with sexual assault many times as a teenager, and it took me a while to even fully understand a lot of those moments in my life,” she says. “But this particular moment completely shook me.”

In the aftermath, McDaniel turned to self-portraits in an attempt to heal. She painted herself wearing a ski mask — a tool that shielded her identity while allowing her to open up. “I was using this mask to protect myself,” she says. After graduation, McDaniel moved to Detroit and found herself longing to connect with others who were grappling with the after effects of sexual trauma. Local artist Michelle Tanguay advised her that if she wanted to explore themes of sexual violence through her work, she should be prepared to discuss her own experience. “Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Kara Walker, Louise Bourgeois … all throughout history women have used their trauma to fuel their art and in turn begin to heal themselves,” Tanguay says. “Gisela’s honesty inspired me, and I knew her story would inspire everyone who heard it — that’s why I encouraged her to tell it.”

Gisela McDaniel

After she was sexually assaulted, McDaniel began painting portraits of fellow survivors, interviewing them as she worked. “Giving people a place to set down the weight of their experiences…and know that you’re not alone is healing,” she says.

As she met other sexual assault survivors, McDaniel invited them to sit for figure portraits and interviewed them while she worked. The paintings are paired with audio recordings from the interviews McDaniel conducted; they’re mixed to ensure no individual voices can be identified. The process was cathartic for both McDaniel and her subjects. “Letting something stay in your body can really manifest into sickness and illness,” she says. “I think we are not often asked to tell our whole stories, so giving people a place to set down the weight of their experiences … and know that you are not alone is healing.”

McDaniel’s paintings from that time often feature full masks, to ensure her subjects would feel safe when their portraits were shared — but gradually she began peeling the masks away. “I’ve realized that a lot of people do want to see [their own] faces. They want to see themselves in this work.” These days, her subjects’ faces are adorned with armor-like strips of bright colors and bits of jewelry, often items they’ve personally contributed, such as a broken bracelet or lone earring. “Things that are worn have stories because they are close to you and experience these things with you,” McDaniel says.

Gisela McDaniel

Gisela McDaniel

But some items that are worn have a murky past. In a mixed-media piece shown in “Dual Vision,” an exhibit that opened earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, McDaniel painted herself in a bikini — a swimsuit with fraught origins. (It was named for the Pacific island of Bikini Atoll, whose residents were displaced in 1946 when the U.S. used it as a nuclear bomb test site. It remains uninhabitable today.) “The French designer who made [the bikini] was literally like, ‘I want this bathing suit to be as big of a splash as the bomb,’ and the families still can’t go home,” says McDaniel, whose work also often challenges cultural appropriation and fetishization of Asian and Indigenous women. “It’s messed up.

This summer McDaniel will show work in “The Regional,” a traveling, multi-museum exhibit that highlights artists from throughout the Midwest. She’ll also show a portrait of her mother in “OVR: Portals,” an online show presented by Art Basel. In 2022, she’ll present a show at London’s Pilar Corrias Gallery. “Her paintings are about healing and regeneration,” Corrias recently told the Financial Times, “both of which, of course, are extremely important as we try to identify a way forward for society.”

Gisela McDaniel

And that’s exactly the point. “Trauma literally lives in our DNA — people have to deal with [their experiences] every day within their body,” McDaniel says. “If we don’t deal with it, it’s just going to keep happening and we’ll have to keep swallowing these experiences. And I don’t want future generations to have to deal with that.”

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