Published  09/12/2019

Meryl McMaster – interview: ‘I explore complex questions around one’s sense of self and belonging to two heritages’

Meryl McMaster – interview: ‘I explore complex questions around one’s sense of self and belonging to two heritages’

McMaster, who often transforms herself into hybrid  animal-human creatures for her photographs, discusses her show, As Immense as the Sky, at the Ikon Gallery, and how her mixed European and Plains Cree ancestry feeds into her work

Meryl McMaster


The Canadian Indigenous artist Meryl McMaster (b1988, Ottawa) creates dramatic photographs of herself in costume within sumptuous natural landscapes that evoke ancient civilisations and folkloric myths. A kind of expanded self-portraiture, these cinematic photographs straddle still life, sculpture, narrative and performance, while also recalling the Romantic tradition of the solitary figure in nature. Through her art, McMaster explores themes of representation and identity, drawing on her own mixed heritage, her mother being of British/Dutch ancestry, her father a Plains Cree native. Ikon Gallery is staging the artist’s first solo institutional show in Europe, As Immense as the Sky,which takes its title from McMaster’s new photographic series, shot in vistas of breathtaking beauty in remote parts of Canada.

In these arresting images, McMaster assumes diverse personas such as a dream catcher or wanderer, often transforming herself into hybrid animal-human creatures through lavish handmade props. Each tableau contains references to myriad stories and traditions from diverse Indigenous communities that can enhance readings of them, but are not essential. In Calling Me Home, for instance, she wears a colourful bison mask and holds a rope that extends into the lake behind her. The image alludes to a Plains Cree sacred story of the Buffalo Child Stone, who was raised by bison after becoming separated from his parents. On his reunion with his family, he couldn’t make the painful choice between being bison or human, so opted instead to become a stone bison for eternity. The Buffalo Child Stone had been a sacred Indigenous gathering place, but it was dynamited to create the manmade lake in the image. The story had particular resonance for McMaster given her own dual heritage. She focuses on the spiritual richness of her heritage, rather than the inherent conflict between coloniser and colonised, although the trauma of that legacy is nonetheless present in her careful use of the colour red, denoting both bloodshed and bloodlines.

Meryl McMaster, Edge of a Moment, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain and The Baldwin Gallery.

One of McMaster’s aims is to reframe and enlarge understandings of Indigenous cultures beyond western stereotypes to show their complexities. For her first photographic series, Ancestral (2008), taken while still at university, she projected ethnographic images of Indigenous people from the 19th  century by white photographers, such as Edward Curtis and Will Soule, on to her face, and paintings by George Catlin on to that of her father, an artist, curator and academic. Since then, her work has become more elaborate. Positioning herself within the landscape, she emphasises the interdependence between humans and nature and, consequently, the urgent need to cherish our environment. Series titles such as In-Between Worlds and Wanderings reflect the unearthly, elusive quality of her photographs, which suggest a sense of communion with past and even future civilisations. McMaster spoke to me by Skype from her home in Ottawa about the Ikon show, her practice and how she overcame shyness to train her camera on herself.

Elizabeth Fullerton: How did this series, As Immense as the Sky, originate?

Meryl McMaster: It was a two-year process. I was thinking about how we experience the passing of time and my specific awareness of time, which comes from two overlapping but distinct world views: my European ancestry, which sees time as linear, and my Plains Cree one, for which it’s recurrent or cyclical. This seed led me to think about the countless cycles of life that have occurred across this territory now called Canada. I’ve photographed at various ancient landforms through Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland. I chose Saskatchewan because that’s where all my family lives, both on my mother’s and father’s side, specifically my Plains Cree ancestry from my father. My father’s ancestors are from Red Pheasant First Nation and lived there for many hundreds of years, so that area is very important to my family. I was born and grew up in Ontario, which was where some of my mother’s family entered Canada from the United States. They took boat rides down the St Lawrence River, so the Newfoundland area also represents early settlement within the storyline of the series.

These are very powerful, overwhelming places, with all kinds of history buried within these landforms that predates human existence. I was interested in seeking the wisdom and the stories of these places, of the ancestral life that had happened in these landscapes, so I spoke with knowledge-keepers within my Plains Cree community, with family members and with friends and did other research of my own. All the images have a little bit of a story in them. I wanted to continue from my older work creating these otherworldly images, weaving stories of the past, but also the present and future. All this coming together, the landscape and the costumes that I make, with myself with my body within the land.

Meryl McMaster, On the Edge of this Immensity, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain and The Baldwin Gallery.

EF: What kind of camera are you using?

MM: I work with a digital Canon 5D SR camera with different lenses. When I started photographing myself, I was working with a medium-format analogue camera, but it ended up being difficult to get the right shot with me in the frame and without blurring because you can’t see the images you’re taking. Eventually, I had to switch over to digital because I don’t like to do too many reshoots. There’s a bit of spontaneity to the first time I take the image and put on everything. The more times I have to reshoot, that magic is lost.

EF: Do you take anyone with you?

MM: I have one or two people I work with, friends or family, depending on who is available. I like to keep the number small because I’m not super comfortable in front of the camera. I have to shed those walls of insecurity in order to get into the character.

EF: I understand that you are quite shy. What drew you initially to put yourself in your work?

MM: In my third year at university, I wanted to do something personal and did a project titled Ancestral, which lent itself to self-portraiture. I was very much disguised because there’s a digital projection of historical photographs and paintings on to my and my father’s faces, transforming the portrait, so I started with that and felt a bit more comfortable being in front of the camera because it didn’t look quite like me. In my final year, I wanted to do something more theatrical that came from personal experience, but also talked about universal issues, looking at self and identity. In this body of work, called In-Between Worlds, I was starting to look at more complex questions of intercultural experiences and how my two heritages are mixed creatively. With those ideas, I knew I could work only with myself again; I don’t have any siblings.

I was also shy about asking other people to pose for me and I was working in very difficult conditions. For a lot of my earlier work, I photographed outdoors in winter and wasn’t properly clothed for the temperatures I was working in, so came very close to frostbite. I can’t imagine putting anyone else through that, but I can push through to get the image.

Meryl McMaster, Deep Into the Darkness, Waiting, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain and The Baldwin Gallery.

EF: At what stage when growing up did you become aware of the conflicting nature of your heritage?

MM: I was very aware of the different cultural backgrounds my parents had. I grew up far from where both my families lived. The First Nations Peoples in Ontario are culturally very different from Plains Cree in Saskatchewan so, when I was growing up, there was always a feeling of wanting to connect and belong. It probably wasn’t until I was starting elementary and high school, learning a bit more about history, that I would have questions for my parents about why we weren’t in the history books – understanding that we had been here a long time before non-Indigenous people came to this country, but why did our history of what we call Canada now start at this time period? A lot of my education in figuring out these difficult relationships and what the real history was came from my parents; it didn’t come from school. Those hard conversations of the true history of the inception of this country were never discussed.

It became very apparent before graduating and trying to build my voice as an artist that I would speak to things I was passionate about and that were troubling to me. All my images start from a very personal place and explore complex questions around one’s sense of self and belonging to two heritages. I don’t only focus on that in my work, but that is one of the themes, and looking at how they mix creatively rather than looking at it in a more negative way. Previously, I was very confused, very upset, very angry and not sure how to come to terms with the feelings I had, but for me to move forward there had to be some element of positive reflection and also hope. It was about trying to learn more about my culture, to immerse myself, learn the stories and the language. It wasn’t only dwelling on the issues of the past, but trying to think about the future as well and what I will pass on to the next generation. Being an artist is my form of communication.

Meryl McMaster, From a Still Unquiet Place, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain and The Baldwin Gallery.

EF: To what extent do you see your images as self-portraits or embodying a character or alter ego?

MM: It’s self-portraiture to an extent, but each of these representations are like theatrical embodiments that reveal different, even new, aspects of myself that I’m not aware of; it’s a mixture of reality and fiction. With each subject, I embody its shifts depending on the natural environment and the costumes I’m wearing. Everything is activated through this one moment. I don’t do public performances. All these elements come together in this moment to create this story, which may look like it’s part of a film, part of a dream sequence, a storybook or recounting history. They’re these private performances that are responding to memory and to emotion in different ways.

EF: When you create each tableau, is there a particular narrative in your head, or do you enact the emotion that occurs in the setting?

MM: When I’m actually at the location ready to photograph, I don’t have any storyboarding. I just have the one sketch I’ve been working on and I really leave that up to the moment. It’s very different from wearing these costumes in my studio where there’s no wind or sand or cold, so when I’m there, right away it puts me in a different headspace. A lot of the movements and how the image ends up are very different from the little sketch. There’s so much I’m thinking about in that moment, like the lighting and changing the exposure or the lens every couple of minutes, or maybe I have to change locations because it’s not working. I’m always straddling these roles of the artist, the director and performer. It’s exhausting.

EF: In a lot of images, you paint your skin white. Why?

MM: I started using that in Ancestral because I had to figure out a technique to make the projection show up better on my skin. Then it came into my later theatrical representations of myself where I wanted to create this dreamlike feeling and not necessarily represent my bare skin, so the white face became this mask or persona, this clean slate almost. This idea that one’s self can evolve over time so you can erase it or rewrite it. Some people are reminded of whitewashing or the colonial impact on Indigenous culture, but really it is about trying to transport myself into this dreamlike state using theatrical paint.

Meryl McMaster, Harbourage For A Song, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain and The Baldwin Gallery.

EF: You rarely face the camera frontally, but in Harbourage for a Song your expression looks defiant as you wear what looks like a nesting house for canaries on your head and wield another one on the end of a pole.

MM: I do all sorts of movements for each image, some look very awkward depending what it’s like to hold all these different objects. I’ll experiment with looking directly at the camera and producing different emotions with every image because, when I’m editing them, I’ll look at the entire body of work to make sure there is a certain overall balance. Sometimes, my back is to the camera, sometimes I’m walking away or towards the camera. When I was editing that one, I think I did want to confront the viewer, though not necessarily in an angry way. The image was taken at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, where, 1,000 years ago, the Norse people first landed. The Breton explorer Jacques Cartier also sailed around those waters 500 years ago. Many stories have passed through this cove and washed ashore, bringing things out of place and out of time. I have these bird houses with little canaries and goldfinches and they represent this sheltering or lodging of unwanted creatures, because these birds were exploited in North America for industrial progress. You can apply that to the colonisers’ attitude towards the Indigenous peoples. The cove is also sheltering this unknown world.

EF: Birds, especially ravens, play a prominent role in your work.

MM: I’ve always had a fascination with birds. They can see from different perspectives, being able to fly, they can look down on the world in a way that humans can’t; they offer this freedom. I also see them as my companions and as messengers in a lot of these images. That can be drawn out from both Indigenous Plains Cree storytelling and European folklore. The raven has a particular significance in the mythical creation story as being a cultural hero. He saved the humans, animals and plants by putting the sun, which had been stolen, back into the sky. Feathers are used a lot within First Nations regalia, so I like to incorporate them within some of the costumed elements in my work as well.

There Are No Footprints Where I Go, installation view, Meryl McMaster, As Immense as the Sky, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham UK, 2019 © Ikon Gallery.

EF: There Are No Footprints Where I Go presents a potentially ominous scene: you sit in a boat at twilight far from shore, blindfolded. I’m assuming the oversized raven perched on the prow with a lantern in its beak is guiding you. In western culture, we distance ourselves from the animal kingdom, assuming a false superiority over it. Are you drawing attention to the need for mutual respect and reliance?

MM: The bird is a reference to that specific creation story, but it’s definitely also about how we are now entering a very critical environmental period and we need to listen to our natural surroundings and to the animal species that are becoming endangered or extinct, being pushed out of their natural habitat because of industrial progress and other factors. Within the image, the specific location is Picton, Ontario, where some of my mother’s Dutch family crossed into Canada around the time of the American revolution. It retraces ancestral paths and memory, evoking the idea of heading into the unknown. Sometimes, migration is not a very optimistic activity. I’m putting my trust in this bird, this messenger.

Meryl McMaster, Cartography of the Unseen, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain and The Baldwin Gallery.

EF: The theme of the fragility of the environment underlies several works. In Cartography of the Unseen, you seem to fuse with a long-necked bird as you stand on dunes against a turbulent sky looking out at us through binoculars.

MM: That image was taken in Saskatchewan in a place called Great Sand Hills. The sandy deposits were laid down ages ago by glacial meltwaters and this whole area was surrounded by farmland, but there are lots of threats from creeping oil and gas extraction. The bird on my head is a whooping crane, which has become endangered within Saskatchewan. I’m looking at displacement of wildlife and of Indigenous people. I was inspired by duck decoys, so using another animal, but it’s almost the idea of calling the animals to you. I was also interested in this idea of the dunes and this ever-changing landscape: it’s always erasing and rewriting and covering over previous lives, like washing over old footprints and animal tracks. So, having this beacon atop my head, I’m trying to seek this trove of hidden wisdom and experience.

Installation view, Meryl McMaster, As Immense as the Sky, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham UK, 2019 © Ikon Gallery.

EF: Three brooding photographs set against a backdrop of spectacular rock formations on a shoreline are titled Ordovician Tide. What does the title relate to?

MM: I was interested specifically in this area called Green Point on the western part of Newfoundland. It’s a geological site formed during the Ordovician period almost 500m years ago. Newfoundland had been fused with Scotland and Ireland, and when North America broke away, the two landmasses shared similar faultlines for a time. I was interested in the fact that, historically, there was this connection to these two landmasses and to my ancestors. I was looking at this place where my ancestors had lived many lives on both sides of this great divide. I’m standing on the precipice between these two worlds. I have these bottles on my back and I’m either letting these bottles go out into the ocean or I’m collecting them. For me, the messages in them represent our story that I feel this urgent need to preserve and the hope that in releasing the stories someone will be listening on other side of the world and receive them.

EF: Time appears to be such an important element in this work. You’re looking up as if communicating with ancestors and maybe future descendants that we the viewer can’t see.

MM: It’s funny you picked that up. I wanted to look like someone was coming, or I was talking with someone, or that someone had maybe called out to me. I definitely wanted a feeling of foreboding, although it’s open-ended. This is a bit dark, but with the messages in bottles I was thinking maybe this image was taken in the future and how, as with George Orwell’s Big Brother, we are being controlled by governments and losing control over our autonomy. I was thinking about this idea of sending SOS messages and that we’d have to resort to these older ways of communicating to pass on knowledge or stories.

Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until 23 February 2020.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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