LONDON — The relationship between portraitist and sitter is complex. Myriad interwoven power dynamics come into play, dependent on socioeconomic factors such as wealth, gender, class, and race. It is perhaps temptingly reductive to dismiss every artist-sitter relationship as hierarchical and exploitative — undoubtedly, there is a clear thread of such images woven through European art history; from Gaugin to Picasso and beyond, the violence of the male colonial gaze is a demon at the heart of the canon. Such interactions maintain carefully cultivated divides between author and subject; voyeur and desired object; or (more often than not) white male and woman of color. The relationship is both a mirror and a manifestation of the binary mode of thinking central to the Western patriarchal-colonial system.
Gisela McDaniel is attempting to upend this relationship. An indigenous CHamoru artist, McDaniel works exclusively with diasporic members of the Global Majority, creating portraits of individuals to whom she refers as her “subject-collaborators.” McDaniel partners closely with her sitters, building connections through the exchange of stories and gifts. Many of these gifts (such as jewelry, toy figurines, or flowers) are incorporated directly into the surfaces of the paintings, contributing to their composition and patina. The artist also often includes audio elements in her artwork, capturing the voices and memories of her sitters and offering them the opportunity to narrate their own histories.
Her exhibition at Pilar Corrias, Manhaga Fu’una, focuses specifically on diasporic indigenous Chamorro women, or Famaloa’an CHamoru, from the Marianas Islands in the northwestern Pacific. The show’s title means “Fu’una’s daughters,” referring to the creation goddess of the island of Guåhan (Guam). Though McDaniel is not a native speaker of the CHamoru language, she has given the exhibition and each of the artworks a CHamoru name as an expression of intimacy between the artist and indigenous sitters.
McDaniel does not pretend to be a neutral onlooker. She is open about her anti-colonialist agenda and her intention to amplify underrepresented voices, making visible people who have historically been erased by both Euro-American colonial oppression and art history. She alludes to the common visual tropes of these traditions throughout the show. For example, the reclining pose captured in “Hu hungok I aniti” (2021) recalls classical portrayals of the goddess Venus, as well as subtly referring to Paul Gaugin’s famous painting “Nevermore” (1897), a nude portrait of Pahura, the 15-year-old girl Gaugin impregnated and infected with syphilis while living in Tahiti.
Whereas the women depicted by Gaugin generally gaze off to the side, leaving the (implicitly white male) viewer to ogle their bodies, McDaniel’s sitters stare proudly and directly from the canvas as if meeting the viewer’s eye. The color palette is similarly reflective of Gaugin’s oeuvre, reinforcing the notion that McDaniel is deliberately subverting and overturning the artist’s legacy. In interviews, she has mentioned that she doesn’t think of herself as “reclaiming” Gaugin’s color palette or aesthetic because it never belonged to him in the first place, but was stolen or appropriated from Pacific islands and their inhabitants.
McDaniel’s personal identity as a member of the diasporic CHamoru community is central to her artworks, which tease out the relationship between the artist’s and sitters’ identities and the spaces in which they meet. The gifted objects incorporated into the painterly surfaces are an important part of this. Some of these items are used literally: a necklace is embedded into the paint around the sitter’s neck, for example, or preserved flowers emerge from painted foliage. Other symbolical objects add detail and texture: diamante jewels highlight the edge of a leaf or teardrop pearls embellish the contoured stripes painted onto each sitter’s face. The process draws elements from the sitter’s real life into the representational space of the picture plane. The canvas becomes a physical extension of the sitter’s identity, a meeting place between the sitter’s body and self-presentation and the artist’s representational choices.
These are sculptural paintings. Deep-box canvases add three-dimensionality; the edges of each work are contiguous with the main image, but also reframe it with contrasting colors, gestural brush strokes, or extensions of textural elements. In works such as “Båli Megnon” (2021) and “Paloa’an Mihinilat” (2021), conch shells, beads, and artificial flowers emerge from the picture plane in baroque effusions, anchoring the works in physical space and forging multivalent bodily and psychical relationships between viewer, painting, sitter, and artist.
McDaniel’s paintings are unusual in how they incorporate sound (which is listed as a material in the media description for each work). The press release indicates that “each portrait is accompanied by a recorded interview with the painting’s subjects […]. The use of immersive audio elements requires viewers to engage each subject’s definition of themselves, the historicity of their experiences, and thus the agency they wield over and in conversation with their portraits.” This aspect of the exhibition is perhaps better in theory than in practice; the sound seems to come from a single speaker and the voices of the sitters sometimes overlap, meaning that the stories and interviews don’t come through clearly. The snippets that do come through suggest the diversity of experience of the CHamoru diaspora, but it’s a shame they can’t be heard more easily, especially when multiple visitors are in the gallery.
Nevertheless, Manhaga Fu’una remains a bold and powerful exhibition. Gisela McDaniel has succeeded in making the portrait a format for subversive anti-colonial practice. Through gestures of collaboration, healing, and respect, McDaniel’s paintings are both safe spaces for self-expression and exploration and empowering platforms for undoing some of the historical erasure and objectification inflicted on women and non-binary people of color.
Gisela McDaniel: Manhaga Fu’una continues at Pilar Corrias (2 Savile Row, London, England) through February 26.