Emerging Artist – Senalka McDonald

The different areas of art that Senalka McDonald takes on intrigue me. Her work can make one a little uncomfortable, which I believe she rather enjoys.  She has such a wide range of talent.  I have seen McDonald’s performances in the past, but I had not realized that she is also a painter as well as a photographer. I was able to sit down with Senalka via Skype to discuss her work, why she decided to attend school for her Masters, and why she has two Bachelors degrees in Geography and Art.

You do so much in multiple areas – painting, performances, and even photography.  What made you want to get into so many different areas?

It happened pretty accidentally. I just like doing a lot of different things.  I feel like there’s multiple ways of getting out thoughts.

Which art form did you start off with first?

I got into painting and collage first, and then I went into photography and video.  Now I’m doing all of it together.

Is there one form that you prefer?

I like doing them all simultaneously.  When one thing isn’t quite working out I can go to something else.  Right now my focus is more on photography and video, and allowing the painting to be in the background.

I notice that you use yourself in a lot of your work.  Do you consider them to be self- portraits?

No. I consider the person in the photos almost as a completely different person even though it is myself.  I was actually just asked a similar question by a curator the other day about how I was able to handle people being critical of the work essentially being critical of me, because I’m in the work.  I actually see the person in the photo as just a small part of myself.  I never see the person as actually being Senalka, so I never really feel like any of the criticisms of the work is ever about myself.

So, you’re mostly using yourself in more of a performance piece?

Exactly.  Every photo I see is a character – although I’m not wearing costumes.  Right now I’m moving more towards creating characters that are less me, and more of a different person visually.

I was looking at your videos, and was thinking how uncomfortable they make me.  The camera is so close, and then in some of the performances you use yourself when there seems like there should be another person there.  Why do you decide to make videos like that?  Do you intend for them to be a little uncomfortable for the viewer?

Yes.  I want the viewer to feel exposed.  I want them to feel like they’ve been caught watching something that they are not supposed watch.  I kind of feel like I walk that way through the world – generally feeling uncomfortable.  It’s a tiny bit of selfishness on my part, because I’m forcing other people to be uncomfortable.

Are you shooting the videos by yourself?

I’m shooting everything by myself.  I feel that shooting by myself is important with the work, but I also am trying to take more risk.  I would like to see what another camera would bring to the work.

Are you doing that with your photography as well?


That’s what I thought.  That’s how I do it, because I feel that when I’m in the portrait I feel like I’m suppose to do everything.

Exactly.  I think that is how I can feel how it’s not necessarily a portrait of myself or a video of myself.  If I have someone else doing it for me I feel like it’s a study of Senalka.

Yes, kind of like a therapy session.


Why did you decide to go back to school to get your Masters?

It was always a goal.  I originally intended on going two years after I graduated from UT (University of Texas, Austin), but I wasn’t ready yet, and I wanted to do some more work on my own.  I felt that the community in Austin was allowing me to learn a lot. So, it just took awhile for me to go back.

Do you think that having a Masters will help you in anyway, or do you think it’s just a way for you to continue learning and growing as an artist?

I think it’s helping me by learning and growing as an artist. My reason for wanting to go back for the Masters was really to learn how to talk about my work.  I don’t feel like I got that out of it. Not because of the program or anything.  I loved the program, but I just think I almost confused myself more, because of all of the other extra stuff that was brought up – doing all the readings, and a lot of other information. I feel more knowledgeable. I got a lot of great work done there.  I feel like I have a better studio practice.  I’m really happy with it.  I wouldn’t be in this residency without the Masters Degree. So, I’m definitely happy that I got it.

How did you get the Core Residency at Glassell School of Art in Houston?

I heard about it before I went to grad school.  I didn’t really know the details.  While I was at school I found a list of residencies for emerging artists.  I went through to see which ones I could apply to.  I had already been thinking about moving to Houston anyway, so it made since to apply to the Core program.

How long does the program last?

It’s two years long, but you have to reapply after the first year.  As long as you participate and work you can pretty much move on to the second year if you want to.  Majority of the people do two years.

What is your Master’s Degree in?

My Master’s is in Fine Arts.

I noticed that you got your Bachelors in both Geography and Art. 

I went to school thinking that I would get a Bachelors in Fine Arts, but I went to school with a bunch of credits already, so I was going to either have to graduate a year early or just add on another major, and Geography was the other thing that I was interested in.  So, I just kind of tacked that on so I could spend the four years at school.

I’m not judging.  I have one in Criminal Justice and another in Photography, and sometimes people don’t understand that.

I feel like anything else is going to be a natural inspiration, because any information that you’re getting is going to have some kind of effect whether it’s direct or not.  So, that’s what I felt about the Geography degree.

I was actually studying Cultural Geography.  It’s about the movement of people, and how space and place affect the people.  The one thing I was focusing on was the way that people where viewed in different geographic areas. I was looking a lot at Latin America.  I was looking at the way that some people where viewed as black in one country and white in another, and how that can affect them. So, I was really interested in that.

That makes total sense to connect that in your work.  Someone from the outside wouldn’t understand that connection between Art and Geography, but they come together very well.

People always think of maps. I love looking at maps, but I wasn’t studying how to make maps.

How would you describe the artwork that you create?  Is it about culture, society – how would you describe it?

I’m still trying to figure that out.  The more sexual work I see as like a sexual education where I’m being taught my place.  This is the way people see you, this is who you are, this is the kind of lens that people are seeing you through.  I kind of feel like that’s what all the work in general has to deal with – this awkward sexuality and growing up with that in front of me.  I guess in one word it’s culture, but it’s like a bigger culture. It’s not just the way women are viewed, but the way black women and Latina black women are viewed.

What is your cultural background?

I’m Panamanian.  My family is from Panama.  I was born here.  Three months after I was born we went back to Panama. Lived there until I was six.  I’ve gone back and forth with my family.

I grew up Catholic, black, and Spanish speaking.

You have a lot of artwork that you can produce just off of that.

Yes. I never really felt like I was really apart of anything, because I was just on the outside of everything.  When I go back to Panama I’m the American girl. I just kind of felt like everything was kind of fractured.  This teaching of the place is just me trying to figure out my place.

So, what’s next for you?

After the Core Residency I want to apply to another one.  Right now I’m going to be teaching a few classes.  I’m at the beginning stages of an everything project. I found a list of songs that the US Army used to torture Manuel Noriega in1989 during the US invasion of Panama.  So I have a video that I’m working on, and some other small social pieces. I’m using the list to make a lot of different work.

Interview by Sonseree´ V. Gibson

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