Behold the magical flutter of McMaster’s epic images

Art | Gregory Beatty

Meryl McMaster, Every Path Tells, 2022

Meryl McMaster: bloodline
Remai Modern
Until Dec. 31

When the McMichael art gallery was established in Vaughn, Ontario in 1955, its mandate was to celebrate the history and legacy of the Group of Seven — the famed early 20th-century Canadian painters renowned for their visceral representation of the wilderness landscape.

The McMichael’s mandate was expanded in 2011 to include contemporary Canadian and Indigenous artists. But in this mid-career survey by Saskatchewan-born, Ottawa-based artist Meryl McMaster landscape, fittingly enough,remains a focus.

Although by strict definition, the works also qualify as self-portraits — albeit with a neat twist.

McMaster is of mixed nêhiyaw, Blackfoot and British/Dutch ancestry and was born on Red Pheasant Cree Nation in north-central Saskatchewan. She studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto, graduating in 2010. Since then, she has won acclaim across Canada, the U.S. and Europe for her dramatic, large-scale photographs which typically depict her in full costume and props alone in a wilderness location.

bloodline is co-curated by McMIchael gallery’s chief curator Sarah Milroy and Tarah Hogue (Curator, Indigenous Art) at Remai Modern.

In a recent phone interview, Hogue said Remai Modern has had a longstanding interest in McMaster’s work.

“There’s the Saskatchewan connection through Red Pheasant, but also her strong image-making and how it speaks to the complex mix of Indigenous and settler identities on the Plains,” says Hogue. “When the McMichael approached us about this project, we were really excited.”

Land & Identity

When McMaster was a student, says Hogue, she did some early work where she projected ethnographic images of Indigenous people taken by Edward Curtis and other 19th-century American photographers onto her face — which she coated with white makeup to serve as a ghost-like screen.

From there, McMaster moved on to photographing herself in the landscape.

She stuck close to home at first, making work near Ottawa and Toronto where she lived and went to school. But she soon expanded her range to include iconic spots such as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland (where Viking explorers first encountered the Beothuk people over 1000 years ago), Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (situated on Blackfoot territory in southern Alberta) and the Great Sandhills and Grasslands National Park in south-western Saskatchewan.

“The landscapes that she places herself in are certainly important,” says Hogue. “They are almost characters in the work, along with the figure — which is always her — and the costumes and props she constructs.”

Family history, and the overlapping (and often clashing) worldviews of her Indigenous and European ancestors on the land and nature, are prominent themes.

“Meryl’s photographs do reference the impact of colonial policies on her family, but the images are open ended. So even when they are referencing that difficult history there is a poetic quality to them that is really  evocative,” says Hogue.

“There’s a really beautiful image called “Anima”which is a winter scene with Meryl painted in white and covered in these multi-coloured butterflies,” she says. “In Cree culture, butterflies are said to represent a person’s soul. So there’s this connection to ancestors, but also this jarring image of butterflies in winter that are maybe waking Meryl up.”

When McMaster sets out into the wilderness to create an image, she has her costume and props in hand, and typically has a rough sketch to guide her. But the actual structure of the image is a game-day decision — so to speak. She shoots in all seasons and at different times of day too, adding an extra element of magic to her photographs, says Hogue.

“There’s an image in a new series called Every Path Tells which was shot near Battleford at this overgrown train track. In the distance, you can see the remnants of an old train bridge. But the landscape was shrouded in fog that day, so it brought a whole different tenor to the image and poetically conveyed how the past sometimes emerges to us in a foggy or fragmented way,” says Hogue.

At their core, the landscapes represent places of imagination as much as specific geographic locations. And that imaginative approach extends to the “portraits” McMaster takes of herself on the land. Augmented by costumes and props, they are highly performative. But in an understated way, says Hogue.

“Meryl has talked about how her process of making images is a fairly small-scale, almost solo endeavour. She usually just works with one other person, so while the photographs are performance-based, it’s quite introverted compared to how we normally think about performance art,” says Hogue.

In truth, the images, with their sense of action and implied narrative, resemble movie stills as much as self-portraits. And in McMaster’s most recent series, Stories of My Grandmothers, she actually does venture beyond the static image.

Stories of My Grandmothers is the first time Meryl has moved into video,” says Hogue.

“There are two instances where she’s wearing the same costumes in the photos as in the video. It makes the images come alive in a way that is unique compared to her earlier work. But because she’s reaching to bring her grandmothers’ stories back to the surface, she’s also playing herself in dialogue with her ancestors.”

Another twist with this new series is that McMaster is working more directly with what Hogue describes as “archival materials and ephemera from her family” rather than her usual fantastical costumes and props.

“There’s a diary and a letter written by her great-grandmother. There’s also a travel pass [which would have been issued by a federal Indian agent], family photographs and other objects like railway spikes, a flattened penny and a petrified pinecone that speak to different histories about family, the land and colonization,” says Hogue.

Some of those objects are on display in the gallery — which is another first for McMaster, who usually lets her images speak for themselves.

Stories of My Grandmothers is Meryl’s exploration of three generations of her paternal grandmothers from Red Pheasant Cree Nation,” says Hogue. “She’s very excited to have the opportunity to present the work in Saskatchewan and have it connect with the community here. We’re excited to be able to host the show.” ■