Meryl McMaster: Virtual Tour



Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky


Canada House, Trafalgar Square

10.03.2020 - Summer/Autumn 2020


Due to the Covid19 pandemic, the exhibition will be closed to the public through the Spring and extended into the Summer/Autumn.


Curator's Notes by Verity Seward


Meryl McMaster is a Canadian artist, living and working in Ottawa. She describes her work as sculptural photography - incorporating props, constructed garments and performance to examine her sense of identity and selfhood. McMaster has dual heritage and is Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) and a member of the Siksika First Nation on her father’s side and has British, Dutch and Scottish ancestry on her mother’s side.


For her latest series, As Immense as the Sky (2019), McMaster set out to gather the wisdom and folklore of relatives on both sides of her heritage. She traveled to sites of ancestral significance across Canada following waterways and ancient pitching trails where social, cultural and environmental histories have collided. Her self-portraits reanimate mythology and family anecdotes through her own personally transformative journey through the landscape. The series draws upon themes of memory, migration, genealogy and time as McMaster retraces the footsteps of her ancestors. Her images explore the intersections of both her Indigenous and European heritage whilst revealing Canada’s conflicted colonial legacies.


On the Edge of This Immensity

2019

Digital C-Print

101.6 x 152.4 cm


This image speaks to the great migrations that have taken place across water over multiple centuries. McMaster considers the many families and migrants who have entered into Canada on a boat and explored out of it, including her own ancestors. Taken at Gore Bay, near where McMaster’s maternal great grandmother was born, McMaster had never visited this area of Ontario when she began the project. Through her research she learnt that, on her mother’s side, her ancestors had emigrated to North America by boat from the Netherlands hundreds of years ago. Initially settling in New York, at around the time of the American Revolution they fled across the border to Canada, settling first around Picton, Ontario, later moving North to Manitoulin Island. Finally they travelled westward to Saskatchewan where they settled permanently and became farmers. Birds reoccur in McMaster’s photography, frequently acting as animal companions or guides on her journeys. Cradling a vessel of starlings and crows, McMaster leads the birds to a safe place, championing the need for us to protect or care for our natural surroundings.


From a Still Unquiet Place

2019

Digital C-Print

101.6 x 152.4 cm


In From a Still Unquiet Place, McMaster’s familial connection to the landscape is opened up to broader legacies of colonisation in Canada. This image was taken on the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, near the homestead of where her father was born and grew up. The area was once densely forested until the land was sold to a farmer who cut down all the trees. Her father would tell her anecdotes about growing up there, riding horses and tobogganing in the winter.


The title ‘still unquiet’ relates a sense of deception in this seemingly serene landscape. Reservations are still highly politically charged sites, carrying the memory of the residential school system and the aggressively enforced colonial project of assimilation that many Indigenous peoples have been subjected to. Carrying vintage school bells, she reanimates the experiences of many generations who have lived on this land before her. Lockets with pictures she has collected of family members hang around her neck.


McMaster creatively mixes streams of reference from her dual heritage. The headpiece - made from dyed turkey and goose feathers - is a nod to the dog soldier headdress worn in powwow regalia in this part of Southern Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, the green tartan is that of the Campbell clan, referencing the artist’s Scottish roots on her mother’s side.


What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth I & II

2019

Digital C-Print

101.6 x 152.4 cm


In this diptych, McMaster wears different variations of the same costume, modelled after an Inuit gut skin cloak - a waterproof garment used for fishing that she saw on a trip to the British Museum. The cloak is adorned with mayflies and water striders, two species which play a crucial role in maintaining ecological equilibrium. As humanity’s collective impact on the natural world is being felt more strongly, many of these insects are silently disappearing. McMaster calls an urgent reconsideration of how we manage our fragile ecosystems. She cautions us to how the natural world is experiencing a profound loss of abundance, which will imminently reach a dangerous condition of no return. These water borne insects have a quick life cycle which repeats itself year after year in fast succession. Always looking to the past to inform the present, McMaster’s practice is interested in a new model of reconceptualising time that is recurrent and cyclical, rather than existing in a straightforward linear trajectory.


Calling Me Home

2019

Digital C-Print

101.6 x 152.4 cm


This image was taken at Lake Diefenbaker, a man-made lake that was flooded in around 1966 to create a dam. After speaking to a knowledge-keeper in the community near her father’s reservation, McMaster learnt the story of a sacred stone, the Buffalo Child Stone, which once existed at what is now the bottom of the lake. This was a real stone which acted as a gathering and connection point for many nations over many hundreds of years. When they created the lake, officials tried to move the stone but it was too large. In the end they had to blow it up with dynamite against the wishes of Indigenous communities in the area.


Cartography of the Unseen

2019

Digital C-Print

101.6 x 152.4 cm


At first seeming like an unusual landscape to find within the Canadian prairies, this image was taken at The Great Sandhills in Saskatchewan - the second largest active sand dune in the country, forged millions of ages ago by glacial meltwaters. In recent decades, the area has been commandeered by industrial agriculture and oil and gas corporations, with numerous pipelines being built through the area, impacting the habitat of much native wildlife.


Following the route of an ancient pitching trail which would have passed through this area, McMaster traverses the dunes wearing a striking headpiece modelled after the endangered whooping crane. Inspired by decoy ducks used by hunters to attract other animals, McMaster’s beacon-like headpiece offers a warning for local wildlife as she leads them to a place of safety. The ever-shifting sands on the windy prairies offer a potent metaphor for the history of colonial oppression - the systematic erasure, rewriting, and covering over of previous lives and endemic species.


Of Universes We Have Just The One

2019

Digital C-Print

114.3 x 76.2 cm


This garment was inspired by a survival blanket that McMaster found in her studio supply bins. On the back, she read over fifty recommendations for its use: to make a signal, to create warmth, to provide shelter. Taken at the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto on a lonely misty morning, McMaster stands like a lighthouse draped in the reflective material as a magnetic celestial spheres cluster around her. The image addresses humanity’s need for gathering and community, exploring how we remedy the feeling of isolation through a connection with others.


There Are No Footprints Where I Go

2019

Digital C-Print

101.6 x 152.4 cm


McMaster had many conversations with family members on her mother’s side to find the exact location where her ancestors crossed over from the United States into Canada hundreds of years ago. Wearing a blindfold, McMaster heads into a murky unknown, suggesting perhaps that migrations are not always an optimistic venture and may entail an escape from an unwanted place. She is guided by the figure of Raven - a cultural hero in much First Nations mythology who is believed to have stolen back the sun from a man who attempted to covet it just for himself.


Edge of a Moment

2017

Giclée Print

152.4 x 228.6 cm


Bring me to this Place

2017

Giclée Print

152.4 x 101.6 cm


The micro series ‘Edge of a Moment’, taken in 2017, was the first time McMaster travelled to specific sites of ancestral importance in what is now known as Canada. The images were taken at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump in Alberta, a heritage site where bison were hunted for 6,000 years. Thanks to their excellent understanding of topography and bison behaviour, hunters would round up the bison and drive them over the edge of a precipice where their carcasses would be processed in the butchering camp below. Whilst this was a sustainable practice that operated for millenia, after settlement on the prairies, bison - and a number of other species - were hunted almost to extinction.

McMaster uses her garment to reference the erasure of key species in this ecosystem and their absence there today as a striking reminder of the broader impacts of colonization on human beings and their environment. The headpiece she wears references the beaver fur used to make fashionable top hats in the 19th-century. From it, a plume of feathers fan out referencing the feather bustles worn by First Nation male dancers in powwow regalia. The prairie chicken holds cultural and economic importance to Plains Cree people, and she has used their tracks in an abstract way to cover the garment she is wearing.

© 2020 by Verity Seward