Meryl McMaster: Passages, Migration and Nature
In her photographic practice, artist Meryl McMaster combines elements of performance and installation, while exploring the tensions surrounding identity and heritage, especially her own as a woman of Indigenous (Plains Cree) and European (British/Dutch) descent. In her work, McMaster focuses on land, the natural environment and migration, in the hope that we will all maintain a long-term ecological equilibrium with the world around us. Both topical and relevant in today’s world, these issues affect not only Indigenous peoples but Canadians at large, allowing her work to have a universal resonance.
McMaster’s performative approach to photography – creating staged images characterized by elaborate costumes and props – is a central element in her practice. She blurs the boundaries between performance, sculpture and photography, with the photograph being ultimately the end result. The artist does not consider these arresting props – including full-on animal costumes and a collar fashioned out of hundreds of twisted newspapers – as stand-alone works of art, but rather as tools of personal transformation that become extensions of her body.
By consequence, self-portraiture features heavily in McMaster’s oeuvre. Commenting in Border Crossings in 2017, art critic Manon Gaudet points out that McMaster's photographs capture the tensions between cultural and personal memory, and what is made possible by the imagination. At the time of winning the New Generation Photography Award, McMaster commented to art journalist Lynn Saxberg, “I’m really interested in exploring questions of our sense of self and how we really come to construct that sense of self through land and lineage, history and culture.”
In much of her work, McMaster presents herself in nature and sees the landscape and seasons as an integral part of her journey of self-discovery. Her 2010–13 series In-Between Worlds was inspired by her profound experiences exploring remote natural landscapes, through which she also began to explore her relationship to others and her place within the natural world. She says that she viewed the creation of the series as a transformational experience: “The idea of In-Between Worlds struck me as an opportunity to express my bi-cultural heritage, not as a struggle but rather as a strategic way of thinking how they connect. I belong to two heritages, existing betwixt and between … I inserted my own body into visual spaces that reflected both the inspiration I felt from my time alone in nature as well as the concept of being betwixt…As I progressed, I began to incorporate sculptures that took on the form of talismans, further suggesting a collaging of my heritages.”
This year, the National Gallery of Canada has added four works by McMaster to its collection: Of Universes We Have Just the One, On the Edge of This Immensity, Lead Me to the Places I Could Never Find On My Own I & II and Harbourage for a Song. They are all part of her most recent body of work, As Immense as the Sky. Begun in 2019, the series deals with the intersection of worldviews, the result of the artist’s upbringing in a family of both Indigenous and Western heritage. Contemplating different views of time and the countless cycles of life led to the development of this series, as McMaster explains on her website: “Many places I visited hold particular meaning for my direct ancestors as they are sites of significant moments in their lives; I was drawn to the sites of ancient stories across central and southern Saskatchewan and to the shores of early settlement in Ontario and Newfoundland. My aim was to reconnect with those who came before me as a way of introducing myself to the land on which they lived. I came to see these landscapes as immense time capsules of buried knowledge. As Immense as the Sky is about walking these ancient paths, experiencing the diversity.” The resulting images are a blend and collapse of time into the present, with the memory of the past and the mystery of the future.
Of Universes We Have Just the One was taken in a snowstorm on the Scarborough Bluffs overlooking Lake Ontario. The idea of edges and borders is important to the artist, as they reflect divisions and colonial concepts of territory, especially that of the nation. For this piece, McMaster constructed a costume consisting of reflective globes. The idea was to present herself as a lighthouse or beacon that guides people to safety. She is wrapped in a survival blanket, which can also be used to signal for help. As well, the signalling has celestial force as a gesture to the universe and indicator of human presence. The twilight or overcast setting alludes to the solitary nature of the human condition. But through the guise of a beacon, McMaster suggests the possibilities of connections, community and gathering.
Lead me to the Places I Could Never Find On My Own I & II were shot in Saskatchewan in Grasslands National Park in the Badlands East Block section. McMaster was attracted to the site for its Dark Sky preserve designation, as she wished to explore Cree stories of stars and constellations. Guides and companions again affect her choice of place for photographing, as stars are used by both humans and animals to navigate. Her hat was fashioned from a cornucopia upon which are perched Indigo Buntings, a bird species that is particularly well known for its capacity to migrate at night, using stars for guidance. McMaster is interested in the deep history of the land, as well as our place in a larger cosmology. Her nest-like basket is filled with stars and she depicts herself as undertaking a long journey, carrying the universe on her back.
On the Edge of this Immensity was shot on Manitoulin Island, at Gore Bay. The piece expresses a persistent theme in the artist’s work; the idea of journey and retracing movements of people – in this case that of her family. Her maternal side, Dutch in origin, lived in New York State and came to Canada after the American Revolution. They settled on Manitoulin Island and then moved to Saskatchewan.
The work shows McMaster at a moment in her journey. The area resonated for the artist as a site where her ancestors once walked, and she depicts herself as re-enacting their journey, carrying a boat that represents their passage to different lands. The birds within the boat are generic in nature, but operate as companions and guides. While there, McMaster felt as if time had collapsed and wondered not only about those who had come before her, but also those who will come in the future. She also reflected upon the nonfamilial – nature and animals, represented by the birds – and their moment in time and how it was her responsibility to carry them to a safe place.
Harbourage for a Song was shot at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. In this work, McMaster was interested in broader histories of migrations. She sees the area as a point of connection to Europe, going back to the Norse who inhabited the site around A.D. 1000. As well, she reflected on all the stories told as people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, passed through. The migration of peoples raised in her mind the question of harbourage, or shelter for unwanted creatures, human and animal. The structures the artist holds and wears reflect this idea; they are massive birdhouses in which yellow birds – goldfinches – appear. For McMaster, not only people but animals and other species are immigrants; the yellow bird can also reference the canary, or domesticated songbird. Ultimately, McMaster feels the entire process of colonization created a need for harbourage as Indigenous peoples were exploited by other peoples’ desire for progress, resulting in massive dislocation, physically and spiritually.
McMaster addresses themes that affect everyone in today’s world, such as tensions surrounding one’s personal identity and heritage, coming to terms with differing worldviews that can exist within oneself and reconnecting to one’s past. An accomplished young artist whose work is both conceptually strong and visually spectacular, McMaster is definitely one to watch.
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