A young woman in a blue tunic and red face paint walks an imaginary line through the snow. Introspective and alone, she gazes at her footprints. Under one arm she carries an unravelling spool of thread which bandages her torso and catches on the undergrowth behind her. As she moves towards the camera, the dormant moisture in the landscape is slowly roused by the late winter sun.
Only 31 years old, Meryl McMaster has received numerous awards, nominations, and increasing recognition in Canada: a strident ascent into the limelight which seems to contradict her natural shyness. Of Plains Cree, British and Dutch ancestry, Meryl’s practice straddles the intersections of sculpture and photography to reveal and expand our understandings of selfhood. She is at the forefront of a new generation of contemporary Canadian artists who are dissecting the nuances of identity politics and engaging with the enduring need for cultural resilience and indigenous representation in a still-not-postcolonial society.
In Wanderings (2015) and In-Between Worlds (2010-15), McMaster navigates intersecting identities - woman, child, indigenous, coloniser, human, animal - through costumed storytelling in response to the Canadian wilderness. Often pushing her body to extreme limits during long shoots on the ice, her lived presence in the landscape is conflated with history, myth and traditional knowledge. As she moves through and inhabits intervening temporalities, the dreamscapes she constructs become spaces of productivity, hope and self-exploration, encouraging the viewer to recall the wonderment and boundless possibilities of childhood play. All the while, her path through the world is informed by the recurring image of the red thread which tethers her to ancestral memory.
Meryl and I chatted on a velvet sofa in South London, gently warmed by a log burner and propelled by caffeine. We discussed her artistic process, the art world's growing interest in indigenous perspectives and the reception of her work in the UK. Our conversation was continued by email and the following interview is the condensed version of these exchanges.
VS: Are you a performance artist?
MM: I started doing self-portraiture at university and I remember that a professor mentioned my work was very performative. That was the first time I’d ever heard that term associated to my work and I was quite resistant to it at first. I’ve always shied away from doing anything on a stage or in front of an audience. Now, as I’ve developed my process, I definitely see that there is a performative aspect. I create theatrical embodiments of different aspects of myself that are all part of extending the boundaries of identity beyond what is known and understood. Each subject I embody shifts in response to the outfits and natural environment I find myself in, activated through a series of performances staged for myself and the camera. In this way, there is a private performance occurring as I respond to the environment, my memory and emotion.
VS: You’ve spoken about how you’re naturally quite shy. Do you use costume a means to hide?
MM: I definitely use it as a way to conceal or hide. It kind of goes back to that nervousness about being up in front of a crowd in your normal, everyday way. I’m comfortable in front of the camera knowing that the person presented in the image is not quite me; it’s this dreamlike aspect of myself which feels different. Creating these scenarios is an escape from dealing with the world in general and from those days when it’s hard to face yourself and explore those harder questions about your identity. It’s this foray into somewhere where you can let your mind wander - going back to this idea of daydreaming, getting out of reality and escaping.
VS: What do you learn about yourself through the process of each series?
MM: There’s definitely a lot of questions that I bring up in the works that I still have unanswered feelings or ideas about. These are ongoing explorations of myself and I still don’t know how long they will take to answer and whether I will feel at peace with myself or with larger questions about society. As I produce new work, I’m pushed to examine who I am and what that means. Some things become clear, some things stay the same and some things I still have to keep exploring. My work is a learning process, where I not only learn about myself, but have the opportunity to grow my knowledge about both sides of my heritage. With each body of work, new ideas lead me down new learning paths.
VS: How does each body of work evolve from initial idea to finished image?
MM: Usually my process starts from a very personal place in my life and then extends to a broader context. For example, the series In-Between Worlds came at a time in my life when I was exploring my ancestral roots and trying to understand myself in between my mixed heritages. For Wanderings, I was in a stage of moving into adulthood and going through a journey into the unknown. My process is instigated by what’s going on within myself as well as what’s going on in the world outside of my own experience. My ideas always start with a simple scribble of text or a drawing. Rarely does the final artwork look like the original drawing as my process is extended over many months and there is lots of time for ideas to evolve with daily contemplation. The spontaneity of production and photography can bring out meaning that I didn’t realise was there. When everything comes together the images can read very differently from one to another and become much more alive than my initial concepts were. VS: Your father is a respected curator, artist and author, you must have grown up surrounded by interesting artworks and ideas. How has this shaped your own creative practice? MM: I was born and raised in Ottawa. When my parents moved there, the artistic community was very small, but they were very much part of it as my dad was an artist himself. I have fond memories of growing up in a creative household and going to art openings and events with them. My dad’s art studio was in our house so there were many moments of watching him work as well as joining in to make my own amateur artworks. I did dream of being an artist but I never thought I had the skills to succeed. Struggling through school with dyslexia always made me very self-conscious and unsure of my abilities. I remember being interested in costume and set design as I loved theatrical experiences but I always preferred to remain behind the scenes. I have kept a little note that I wrote when I was very young about wanting to be a poet and move to Paris with my dog. Thinking back, there was definitely a curiosity or an interest in the arts and I think these early ambitions show up in my current art practice.
VS: You’ve spoken about how you feel tethered to your ancestry, what does the recurring imagery of the thread symbolise in your works? Is the weight of your ancestry a burden to you? MM: Part of who I am has been formed by knowing where my ancestors came from and their story. The thread is this reminder for me not forget where I’ve come from. When I go out into the world, there’s always going to be a part of me connected to my family and my past experiences. The thread serves as a reminder to always have this continued exploration of myself and a continued learning and understanding of my cultures. Specifically, with my indigenous culture, there’s definitely not only a personal duty, but a responsibility to future generations to learn as much as I can in order to pass the knowledge I learned from my parents and our elders onto the next generation - so that we can hold onto this knowledge.
VS: Previous works have examined your indigenous ancestry and drawn upon colonial image making regimes and the misrepresentation and manipulation of images, for instance in the work of Edward Curtis or George Catlin. How do you counteract entrenched and static definitions of identity that non-Native people may have?
MM: In older works, like Ancestral, I started to explore my indigenous culture and the way we have been represented through the European lens. There’s a consciousness of representation with both my cultures that I bring that into my more recent work. I try to dispel those stereotypes that have been placed upon us. We are contemporary people and so our work doesn’t have to stay in a certain style; it can grow and form in new ways. I use traditional knowledge and try to bring it into a contemporary space.
VS: Ethnographic representation, Hollywood and cultural stereotypes have consigned and continue to consign Indigenous identities to an imagined realm of static or vanishing pastness. The perception of time and history seems to be important in your work where you inhabit almost dreamscape environments that possess a timeless quality. How do you navigate contemporaneity, mythology and history in your work?
MM: In much of my work I’m representing the past, the present and a message or thought for the future. At the moment, I don’t have any markers necessarily for what time period the images are taken in. I don’t shoot with an urban background, so you don’t necessarily see the style of what life is in that moment and the costumes or dress I have on don’t reference a certain time. Again, that goes back to a kind of dreamscape. Dreams don’t necessarily have that marker of time, they can be drawn from all parts of your life.
VS: You’ve discussed how the recurring imagery of birds expresses a wonderment you felt as a daydreaming child, imagining the sky and its boundless possibilities. Why is this return to a childlike perspective on the world important? What do you want the viewer to take away from your images?
MM: As an adult, I still remember and share some of the thoughts and feelings I had when I was five years old. You’re not quite formed as a person when you’re very young; you’re growing to that point. I think that the reference to this childlike nature brings me back to a time where there’s less pressure, fewer responsibilities and your mind has the chance to explore. You have permission to dream. My work is a reminder to hold onto that and I think there’s good in going back to those headspaces. As you get older you forget that mentality.
VS: Are gender and womanhood something you feel is important to explore in your work?
MM: I don’t know if it’s something I explore directly, but I think it’s something that comes in - whether intuitively or naturally - from me being a woman. I hope that people of all genders and background can enter my work, bring their own storyline and experience to it and see mine as well. Whatever stage of life you’re at and what experiences you’ve gone through I hope that people will be able to enter the work in some way.
VS: There seems to be a growing momentum in the representation of Indigenous artists in international forums and on the biennale circuit. Do you agree? If so, why do you think the art world is now becoming more interested in Indigenous perspectives?
MM: I think that it is a very good thing that there is more awareness and interest in who we are as Indigenous peoples but also being recognised as contemporary people or contemporary artists. There’s still a lot of work to do for us to be considered equals and to be valued. Even though there is this light shone upon us at the moment, I hope that it isn’t just this moment. I hope it continues past this current interest because you don’t want to replay history. I think it’s really well deserved of artists that are being represented in the biennales and I hope that continues. VS: What does it mean to be labelled as an Indigenous artist, what does that bracket mean to you? Do you feel any kind of pigeonholing?
MM: I’m very proud of both my Plains Cree and European heritage when I think of my family and our stories. I understand that people like to identify people or artists in a certain way in order to put context to the work; I totally get that and I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. For me, I identify as an artist first, with no extra labels attached to that. My work deals with the self and identity and there is a very personal aspect of the work which explores my heritage. My only concern is that the label of Plains Cree or Indigenous artist could potentially be limiting in terms of how people can understand the work. Sometimes I worry that people feel that there’s only one direction that they can enter the work from. I think that my work can be open-ended to many people, it doesn’t specifically talk about one side of myself.
VS: British imperial history is not widely discussed in the UK; the history of the colonial encounter in Canada is not taught in schools. It wasn’t until I lived in Montreal that I learnt anything about the history of residential schools, enforced assimilation and the enduring legacies of colonisation which continue to impact First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. From my experience, I would also argue that the conception that many British and European people have about Indigenous identities in North America is derived from and clouded by Hollywood westerns, ethnographic museums or kids movies like Pocahontas. How do you feel about your work being viewed in London and how do you think it will be received by a British audience?
MM: Having my work brought over to London is a chance for people to discover my story and for people to look at the world in new ways through my art. This opportunity is humbling in that I am able to share my story and history with a new audience who share in our collective history as Canadians. I think that it is important to have our stories shared in order for there to be healing and reconciliation within our communities. For me, it’s not only an exciting time - just to have the opportunity to show my work outside of the place that I live - but it’s a way for people to learn about our history and stories in an unconventional way and open up those discussions through a different lens. VS: Aged only 29, you’ve received increasing recognition for such a young artist, what pressures come with this and how has this impacted your artistic practice?
MM: It’s one of the many things I struggle with mentally. It’s really encouraging to receive recognition and support and to know that my work reaches and impacts people outside of the studio walls. With those pressures always comes the stress of considering your next achievements. There is a lot of self-imposed stress, anxiety and pressure I put on myself for ideas to grow and evolve and to keep me interested as an artist. I don’t want to repeat ideas that I’ve already played with. I take these moments in and then I have to then not think about them anymore as it can be a bit paralysing for my creativity.
VS: What future projects are you most excited about?
MM: Right now I’m working on my next body of work; I’m in the writing/research stage of the project. I’m in that antsy stage, where I’ve worked on the ideas for a long time and I just want to begin production. That project is still a year away from being on the walls or in a space, but I’m really excited about it. I’m also starting to venture into creating a short film alongside my work which will be a new avenue for me. It’s a nerve-wracking but exciting venture. I’m looking at bringing my still images to life in a different way through moving image. With this new project, I’ll have the opportunity to travel within Canada to site-specific locations of ancestral importance to myself and my family but also of historical importance to the country. VS: Are there any artists you would particularly like to collaborate with?
MM: Oh wow, gosh, there are so many. I definitely look up to the artist Rebecca Belmore. She’s someone whose work I’ve admired and followed for a while. I’ve always loved the work of Nick Cave. His practice is more on the costume side but we both deal with identity in different ways. I am used to working alone and collaboration is something, again, which I am shy to do. If I didn’t have that hesitation it would be fun to do that more often. Interview conducted in January 2018. A shortened version of this interview was published in Border Crossings Magazine June 2019.