Håfa Adai—hello! I recently spoke with artist Gisela Charfauros McDaniel and her mother, scholar Antoinette CHarfauros McDaniel, to discuss Gisela’s painting and sound piece Tiningo’ si Sirena (2021), which the MFA recently acquired. Gisela paints BIPOC femmes who live and thrive lovingly, adding their belongings to the canvases and featuring their voices and stories as sound installations. Her practice celebrates storytelling and healing.
Tiningo’ si Sirena is a nearly life-size painting of the artist’s mother. The title means “knowledge of Sirena” in Chamorro, the Indigenous language of Guåhan (Guam) and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.1 Sirena (Spanish for mermaid) is an important CHamoru legend we discuss at length in the conversation.2
As the first CHamoru curator at the MFA, it has been a joyful opportunity for me to shepherd this work of art by a young CHamoru artist into the collection.
—Marina Tyquiengco, Ellyn McColgan Assistant Curator of Native American Art
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sound Component for Tiningo’ Si Sirena
Listen to the audio portion of Gisela Charfauros McDaniel’s multimedia artwork, which features parts of an interview with the artist’s mother.
Gisela Charfauros McDaniel:
My name is Gisela Charfauros McDaniel. I’m a painter and social practice artist currently based in Detroit, Michigan. I am mixed-race, half-Indigenous CHamoru. My mother is from Guam. I grew up in the CHamoru diaspora.
Antoinette CHarfauros3 McDaniel:
Guahu si Profesót Antoinette CHarfauros McDaniel, Familian Capili, Deru, Ye’ye’, CHunge’, yan Kotla. Taotao Tamuneng yan Hågat yan guahu lokkue, i Nåna-ña si Gisela. I am Professor Antoinette CHarfauros McDaniel; my family (clan) names are Capili, Deru, Ye’ye’, CHunge’, and Kotla. My families are from the villages of Tamuneng and Barrigada, and I am also Gisela’s mother. My pronouns are gui’,4 she, and her.
Gisela, how would you describe your art practice?
A lot of my process stems from being a feminine person existing and moving through the world and going through experiences that I needed to heal from. I have shared my own stories; it’s empowering to have words for them, and to have people affirm you. It releases you. I built a process of healing that helped me and decided to share it through my art. What that looks like is talk story5—having conversations, being able to set heavy experiences down, and not holding things in. It’s creating space for us to tell our histories and to be heard. It’s celebrating our bodies and what we look like: seeing Pacific Islander people and women and femmes painted in a way that’s really empowering and that we have full control over.
When I was growing up, looking at [19th-century French artist Paul] Gauguin’s work, it was always a little off-putting. The colors and tones felt familiar, but the subjects didn’t look happy. I always wondered what their stories were. As a Pacific Islander, it’s really exciting to build my own practice that gives people a voice.
Gauguin was also one of my first exposures to art, and I also try to emphasize building relationships in my curatorial work. I wonder if your process—interviewing your subjects while sketching them, then painting them and making sound components from various interviews to accompany your paintings—was different when painting your mom. Relationships with our moms are the longest we have. Have you interviewed and painted her before?
Yes, I’ve painted her a handful of times. It’s a different process than my usual interview because, as you said, that’s the longest relationship I have. Mother-daughter relationships are a very special thing, and they can be very intense. I’m really lucky to have such a wonderful mom whom I learned so much from. A lot of the way she raised me shaped my practice; she’s just inherently intertwined in it. For our interview, she already knew what she wanted to share with me.
I tell the people I paint, “This is a process for you. Say what you want to say, say what you need to say.” The institutional violence my mom experienced in academe as a first-generation Indigenous scholar was something I was present for, but too young to understand. As we get older, we can talk about anything with our parents. I came to understand her experience, which was important for our relationship. To do the interview for this painting, we sat in my apartment in Detroit, I gave her the prompt, and she took the mic. She said everything she needed to say. That’s the process, letting things out. My interviews are all about accountability, being able to share stories that might be painful, or a difficult situation we survived, so we are not solely responsible for holding them.
Her interview was also about the historical and personal impacts of Guam’s colonization on her life, and on CHamoru communities—those in the diaspora and on the island. The people who exist through colonization or are currently colonized shouldn’t be the only ones dealing with colonization. Accountability to me looks like listening to other people, caring for others, and being aware. Our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers and our ancestors didn’t get that opportunity [to be heard]. Being an artist was a dream of mine from a young age. It’s kind of surreal that I’m now a working fine artist, but I also see it as a responsibility. If you have opportunities to put things in spaces that are going to be seen, you should be responsible.
Profesót CHarfauros,6 what was it like sitting for Gisela?
This was the third time I sat for a painting and interview with Gisela. The experience is always meaningful. As an Indigenous feminist who has taught critical qualitative methods, it was odd to be the person being interviewed, no less by my adult daughter. I’m always impressed by how Gisela conducts her interviews. She provides minimal questions and maximum freedom for subjects to respond. As a decolonial/Indigenous researcher, I genuinely learned something about interviewing from her. Throughout the process, I felt safe, respected, and loved. Our conversations are usually about prosaic, everyday things. This wasn’t that. An interview is a very specific kind of conversation, and that was especially the case here since this interview was meant to accompany the portrait.
I sat for the painting in our home in Ohio at the height of COVID, when it was still a widespread, menacing threat. We took the need to protect each other very seriously, an artifact of the historical moment. Since I’d sat for Gisela before, we dove right into the creative process of incorporating various items from our home into the composition, such as the blue batik fabric gifted from Gisela’s paternal grandmother, which represented i tåsi (the ocean). We also included a lambskin blanket placed directly in front of me to represent i mi’unai (the sand). As CHamoru famaloa’an (women), and as mother and daughter, these elements are invested with deep meaning for the past, present, and future of i tåno’-ta yan taotao-ta (our land and our people). I wanted the portrait to draw from the CHamoru story of Sirena while incorporating objects from our home. Each piece connects our everyday lives to our Indigeneity as diasporic CHamorus whose presence on Turtle Island reflects the ongoing colonization and overmilitarization by the US.
What a wonderful experience for you both. Responsibility and accountability are so key, and part of that is sharing the words, not just images, of the people you paint. Gisela, you typically do not identify the people in your paintings or their voices in the recordings. How do you make sound installations?
A lot of my work stems from the realization that my own experiences were really common. When I first started doing this work, I was really fixated on repetitions in interviews. In my interviews, I ask about events that create invisible hurdles in one’s life. The people I paint might not have had the space to talk about their experiences publicly, or it’s been too taboo in the past. I weave together different voices to create a chorus. I imagine visually all these voices coming together to make the argument stronger. It’s protection and research. When I work, I think about all the audiences that are going to be walking up to this painting, who might not know my mother at all, or might never have heard of Guam.
I have different tactics to address each audience. Sometimes the audio is like a protective layer, but it’s also a gift for the people outside of these experiences who get to listen. One voice might be singled out. It just depends. Since my practice already asks people to be vulnerable, I handle the interviews with extreme care. That’s a common CHamoru practice as well, caring for and having respect for others. Recently, my mother and I were on Guam when the legislature was discussing the [anti-abortion] “Guam Heartbeat Bill.” Watching people, and especially several strong CHamoru famaloa’an (women), including my mom, testify against it, I thought about how much stronger their many voices are when taken together. In May, for example, that bill was essentially defeated because so many people, and specifically women and organizations, came out against it.7
Profesót, can you talk about the interview from your perspective?
There was a moment when I realized that by layering interviews and gifted artifacts in her portraits with such respect, Gisela’s practice embodied the soulfulness that I aspire to impart as a scholar-activist. That level of care, or what CHamorus call inagofli’e, means to truly see (li’e) and care for others. I’m proud that it’s integral to her artistic practice.
The themes I explore in the interview include the intellectual and spiritual trauma I experienced during a tumultuous career in academe. Given the corrosive impact of practices that frequently erase and alienate BIPOC students, faculty, and staff, I’ve come to refer to them as contributing to a form of institutional genocide. I submit that these experiences are linked to the systematic alienation of BIPOC students, faculty, and staff in predominantly white, neoliberal universities, with my own disappearance early in my career being a case in point. For Indigenous Pasifika peoples, these tendencies are also tied to the history and ongoing colonization and militarization by the US.
For the painting, I connected a particularly galling personal experience with the simultaneous appropriation and erasure of Pasifika culture. In my final semester of teaching, I learned through a university diversity and inclusion newsletter that the Pasifika term “wayfinding” was selected as the title for a new student program. After inquiring into the inspiration for the name, I learned that the 2016 Disney film Moana played a major role, something I’d anticipated but was loathe to have confirmed. Knowing full well—based on empirical data and my lived experiences teaching in the Midwest—that Pasifika students had little chance of actually benefitting from the program, I was left shaking with indignation. It was yet another experience of what Indigenous psychologists Eduardo and Bonnie Duran refer to as a soul wound.8 It was also one more in a long list of emotional and intellectual assaults on my dignity as a CHamoru scholar and activist, and a stab in the heart on my way out the door, so to speak.
While the audio component of Tiningo’ si Sirena gives voice to that pain and frustration, it’s really important to me that the painting underscores the fact that I, like many of my CHamoru famaloa’an ancestors before me, remain unrepentant, proud, and, at least in our souls, unconquered Pasifika subjects. For me, that is the real message of this collaborative mother-daughter piece. I hope it also resonates with other Indigenous, and specifically Indigenous Pasifika, people who encounter the painting.
Thank you for sharing so openly what I’m sure was a very difficult and traumatic time for you in the academy. On a brighter note, it is so wonderful to hear this process from the interviewee side, and to think about how both voices and belongings are woven into the painting. There are so many things that feel so CHamoru on this painting: the rosary, the latte stone earring, the T-shirt that everybody’s dad or uncle had on Guam, the interior. Gisela, how did you add these objects together?
Weaving is absolutely the right word because there is no clear process to adding things. Clothing has to be added first and then painted over. The jewelry is one of those final layers, and it’s fun. I add jewelry as if I were picking out accessories to make myself look really special. My mom gave me a bag of things, and I spread them out around the painting, adding them as it felt right. I often pull things apart, then put them together and lay them on top of each other. The cross and the T-shirt belonged to my grandparents, and the earrings were my mom’s. Most of the necklaces and the shells were from my last trip to Guam, in 2020. I also added rhinestones to make the painting sparkle and feel alive.
Moving from the belongings, can you talk about how you styled your mom and the interior?
She’s in our living room in the house that I grew up, in Ohio. It looks CHamoru because she designed the living room, including choosing the upholstery for the couch. That’s a couch that she sits on every day. It’s her spot. The plants are artificial tropical plants we brought into the frame. She’s wearing a sequin dress to look like a sirena. The upper part of the dress is folded down around her waist because we thought about how it would have been a normal part of life for our ancestors on the island. The colors were just very her: rich reds and greens. Even the pattern and texture feel very oceanic. The sequins were like the scales of a tropical fish. But a lot of the things were just objects in our living room that are always there, including the white coral, which has a distinct meaning, since it relates to climate change and coral bleaching. It’s not just a random beach accessory. My mom always wants books in her paintings, and she chose to wear a mwarmwar, or Micronesian flower crown.9 Mwarmwars are braided strands of tropical leaves and flowers. They’re worn as adornments to celebrate special occasions. In 2021 she and I learned how to make them with a group of CHamoru women in New York City. I ask people to share personal objects for their portraits. These are just a few of hers.
With the ongoing, unsustainable development in Guam, especially by business interests who aren’t necessarily CHamoru, sometimes our homes are the only spaces that truly feel like ours. Those spaces feel very sacred. An ancient CHamoru practice requires us to ask permission from our Guello yan Guella (grandfather and grandmother) to enter the jungle, as a sign of respetu (respect).10 It’s an honor to go into someone’s home, and it’s special to invite viewers in.
Profesót, can you talk about how you are styled?
During the pandemic, I’ve been learning more about daily life and CHamoru resistance under Spanish colonization in Guam, especially with respect to Catholicization. So, I wanted to be captured without covering my breasts to pay homage to my great-great-great-grandmothers, who would have done so unashamedly, until Western colonial religious mores stigmatized baring our bodies. Guam, after all, is a tropical climate. It just makes sense that women and girls would have gone around without excessive clothing. This decision was about Indigenous CHamoru women’s bodies and disrupting the colonial representation thereof. It reflects a core belief that I’ve shared with Gisela since she was small: our bodies are good and, above all, they are ours.
Gisela, can you talk a little bit about the title?
I have been giving people the option to self-title their paintings lately. My mother came up with the title, which is based on Sirena, the CHamoru mermaid story about a young girl who goes out to the ocean and doesn’t want to come in. In frustration, her mother curses her and says, “If you aren’t going to listen, why don’t you just become a fish?” Her Nina (godmother) intervenes at the last minute, saying, “Leave the part that belongs to me.” Sirena the girl then turns into Sirena the mermaid: half girl, half fish.
My mother reminds me of Sirena because she has always gone her own way and been very radical in her politics. Like Sirena, she also experienced a great deal of loneliness and mahålang (longing) during her career. She had to swim against the currents of colonization, racism, and sexism. She spent her adult life lecturing, teaching, and injecting Pasifika histories and knowledge into every classroom and institutional space she inhabited. She was one of the first CHamoru Indigenous feminist scholars in her field of sociology. My understanding is that she used every opportunity she had, whether in her own classroom or coordinating conferences and panels, to create spaces for CHamoru scholars and students. She always fought for her beliefs, no matter the cost. She would always speak up and do what was right, morally in her heart and as it relates to our culture, which emphasizes inafa’maolek, literally making good for the community. She just cares for people and their well-being, and she instilled that in me. As a matrilineal culture, CHamoru women are strong and powerful both in and outside of their families. This has been the case from ancient times through the present. So, thinking about the overall message of Sirena: you should definitely do your chores and be respectful, but it’s okay to follow and trust your heart, because in the end there’s a group of women, like your Nina, who will have your back.
May 5, 2022, was the first official Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day in the US. Pacific Islander women, like other Indigenous women, face much higher rates of violence. This painting is not about surviving physical violence, but healing is such a through line of your practice. Is it fair to think of your art as a kind of love letter to the strength of the people you paint?
I hope that the higher rates of violence for Indigenous peoples do not continue past our lifetime. Women should be able to make decisions about, and feel safe in, our own bodies. The violence against Indigenous women and femme people often mirrors our climate crisis. The way we treat women and femme-bodied people is how we treat the earth. You take all these resources but you don’t replenish them, or take care and make sure we have the things we need and that we’re safe. Eventually, you lose those things.
The people I paint come to me wanting to share their stories. Going back to accountability, what gives me hope is being able to talk about violence and it not being a shameful thing. Lately, during interviews, I wait until after we share the heavy stories to record. Then we talk about what survival looks like and the strength it takes to continue even though you’ve survived difficulties. I have conversations with people about how to make the world safer and what that would look like. People need to be more aware that a lot of people wake up every day and have to navigate the world in a strategic way to stay safe. I say people because this doesn’t just apply to women. I know so many people who have existed through so many things and they’re still such brilliant, amazing people, and you would never know. We’ll never know what generations before us survived, especially through wars like World War II.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s still so much work to do. This is a celebration. This is history to me. Our stories aren’t about the violence. People are so much more than the trauma they experience. We are all surviving things, and that’s something to celebrate.
Is there anything else that either of you would like to say or ask each other?
My mom just came with me on my trip home to Guam in May. My art allowed me to take her home after more than 30 years away, which was really special for both of us. She and my maternal grandparents are the reasons I always knew and valued being CHamoru. She was also such a good mother in supporting me to be an artist, and she sought out community resources to nurture me. I’m really grateful to her really for instilling such a strong sense of who I am, making it really clear that I’m CHamoru and that Guam is where we come from.
It’s a gift to learn from other people, and I hope that people see my art as a gift. At home on Guam, gift giving is part of our culture. I’m really proud to be CHamoru, to talk about and celebrate Guam and shine a light on the good, the bad, the ugly, and the funny that exist in every culture. I’m just so grateful for all of my family, my island, and my people.
I invite CHamoru community members to be on the lookout for the third annual CHamoru Pathways Through Higher Education webinar, scheduled for Saturday, October 1, 2022. The goal of the webinar is to demystify, decolonize, and help CHamorus to discover higher education. Dangkålu na Si Yu’os Ma’åse’, Gisela, i guiyayon håga-ku. I Tåta yan Nåna-mu, your Dad, Guahu, yan todu i familia-mu in guaiya hao. And Saina Ma’åse, Marina, for the opportunity to talk story with you about Gisela’s work. Dios di ayudi hao in your respective Sirena journey curating fine art. You both make me gof fauros (very proud).
1 CHamoru is the spelling of Chamorro for the language and people specific to Guam, but the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands, or CNMI, retains the earlier spelling of Chamorro.
2 See “Sirena,” in Chamoru Legends: A Gathering of Stories, told by Teresita Lourdes Perez, translated by Maria Ana Tenorio Rivera, edited by Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero (Mangilao: Taiguini Books, University of Guam Press, 2019), 17–22.
3 CHarfauros is the preferred spelling by Antoinette CHarfauros McDaniel. She follows the recommendations of the Kumisión i Fino’ CHamoru yan i Fina’nå’guen i Historia yan i Lina’la’ i Taotao Tåno’ (Commission on CHamoru Language and the Teaching of the History and Culture of the Indigenous People of Guam), the official government of Guam language and culture organization.
4 In Chamorro, gui’ is a nonbinary third-person pronoun that can mean she, he, or it.
5 Talk story is a CHamoru and Pasifika expression used for oral storytelling. Originary stories of Guam that we refer to as legends are some of the most important continuous traditions, passed down through storytelling.
6 Profesót is a term of respect, CHamoru for professor. As she is my elder, it is more appropriate and respectful to refer to Antoinette CHarfauros McDaniel as “Profesót,” rather than by her first name. As we discuss, profesót is a title she proudly chooses.
7 Associated Press, “Hurdles to abortion will mount on remote U.S. territories without Roe,” National Public Radio, May 27, 2022.
8 Eduardo Duran, Healing the Soul Wound: Trauma-Informed Counseling for Indigenous Communities (New York: Teachers College Press, 2019).
9 Madison Scott, “Mwarmwar making and cultural exchange at Valley of the Latte,” Pacific Daily News, March 18, 2022, .
10 Robert Tenorio Torres, “Pre-Contact Marianas Folklore, Legends, and Literature: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Sciences, 2003: 2 (1–2), 12–13.
Antoinette CHarfauros McDaniel (@profchat4us) is an Indigenous CHamoru feminist scholar, community organizer, and Saina (elder) of Masakåda Collective (@Masakåda.collective), an anticolonial famaloa’an/gender-fluid-centered group dedicated to advocating for CHamoru nation building in the Marianas and beyond.
Gisela Charfauros McDaniel (@giselamcdaniel) is a diasporic Indigenous CHamoru artist. Her work is based in healing from her own sexual trauma and reflecting the healing of womxn and nonbinary people who have survived sexual trauma.