An enigmatic figure in a top hat that explodes into feathers and red ribbons looks back at us over her shoulder. She is striding toward the brink of a prairie cliff, her attire billowing with movement, the piece is entitled Edge of a Moment and it does feel like we have entered another dimension of time, where everything hangs in the balance. The location is one where bison were hunted sustainably for over 6,000 years, a species brought almost to extinction within only a few decades of colonization.
Otherworldly figures with mysterious and sculptural accoutrements traverse breathtaking landscapes in Meryl McMaster’s photographs. The Ottawa-based artist creates self-portraits drawing on her mixture of Indigenous and European heritage to explore the complexities of identity, and its connection to collective and individual histories and the land. As in the United States, the relationship between settlers in Canada and its original inhabitants has been a deeply oppressive one where immeasurable indigenous lives and ways of life have been destroyed. In her explorations of the limits and possibilities of the self, McMaster’s images reclaim and reimagine many of the stories and traces left by these different cultures.
In this interview for LensCulture, Clare Samuel spoke to Meryl about the malleability of time, how stories are key to identity, and the power of the natural environment in her work.
Clare Samuel: Much of your work draws on your dual lineage, which plays out visually through costumes, props and gesture. Can you talk about that aspect of your identity and how it manifests in your work?
Meryl McMaster: The value of exploring and seeking to understand my cultural history was instilled in me by my family in helping to form a sense of self. I draw on these personal explorations of my mixed heritage—nêhiyaw (Plains Cree)/British/Dutch—as they are things that I am always thinking and learning about. Including certain stories and symbols that reference my different heritages in my photographs, as well as broader historical narratives, connecting to my ancestors and living relatives, and communicating my contemplations on how one’s identity is formed.
In my newest body of work, As Immense as the Sky, I speak to both of my families’ connections to this territory now known as Canada. I traveled across Canada to site specific locations in order to re-experience ancestral stories and to give voice to being one in a succession of those who experienced the land in similar yet culturally varied ways. Each site had a particular interest for me. I could not help but feel a very strong sense of Indigenous presence at each site that I photographed, because the landscapes I visited continue to hold particular meaning for my direct ancestors and other Indigenous nations.
The Plains Cree are one of many nations that originated on this land. It was particularly significant for me to re-trace their footsteps. Some stories that I researched for this project have been passed down to me by family, in other instances they were parts of the national identity of Canadians. As I walked these ancient paths across this country, I learned the stories of those people who traversed the land before me. I later set out to animate, re-tell and transform them (and myself) through photography. The resulting images are a blend and a collapse of times into the present.
CS: Can you talk us through how some of these cultural symbols show up in your images?
MM: Deep Into the Darkness, Waiting is an image taken on my father’s home reserve, Red Pheasant First Nation, in northern Saskatchewan. I wanted to photograph at night and when location scouting on my family’s reserve I really was drawn to the magical light quality at this place, reflecting the sky onto the water I created a mask modeled after the swift fox which is an animal native to this area, one that is endangered. Twilight is when animals like the fox come out. I am representing Wisahkeahk who is a trickster and transformational figure in Plains Cree stories. Also, the fox is a family name on my mother’s side.
Inspired by the stories of Wisahkeahk I transform into an animal figure walking alone down a long flooded over path. The figure, representing both self and family, is on a journey shared with its ancestors, as referenced by the night sky, stars above, and the path below—all shared with generations that came before it. A washed-out path lies ahead, a way to move ahead, but difficult to traverse, perilous—presenting hope but fraught with uncertainty. The cloak has representations of stars and targets painted onto it.
CS: You mentioned a collapse of time into the present, and there is a sense in your images of being outside of time, especially in As Immense as the Sky, which simultaneously invokes ancient and recent histories on the land, while also feeling contemporary and urgent. Many of your projects directly address the genocides against Indigenous peoples over the last 500 years, and you bring these squarely into the light of the present. Can you speak to that process of calling the past into the present?
MM: I create dream-like images that I feel break down the barriers of time and space and allow the viewer to explore and learn about these challenging realities of our collective history and present, in new ways. I start out by drawing upon real histories, people, events, and connections that I have with the past. Through my creative process I combine these different elements with my own experiences and thoughts in order to best express my sense of connection with the past and the present.
CS: This is in vast contrast to the way Indigenous peoples have historically been portrayed in visual culture as already in the past—‘a dying race’. This is most explicit in Truth to Power, where the words of Duncan Campbell Scott (one of the architects of the residential school system) are filtered through and subverted by your body in the photograph and the handwriting of a young Kahnawake girl in the text that accompanies it. Can you talk a bit about the current state of colonizer/Indigenous relations in Canada?
MM: The political climate in Canada is changing but there is still much work to be done in overcoming the legacy of colonization that has affected the daily lives of millions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across many generations. Canada’s colonial history and the continued presence of racist attitudes and negative stereotypes within Canadian society are complicated, and far too daunting to be repaired overnight. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report in 2015 gave hope to repairing the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian State. Since then there has been a shift in the attitudes and understanding of the intergenerational impacts of colonization and a commitment to truth and reconciliation as a national project for all Canadians, but it is still a long road ahead.
CS: Photography is a medium whose history is very intertwined with systems of power and domination. How did you come to terms with that, and find a way to make it your own?
MM: I really feel that because I am in control of every aspect of the process from beginning to end that I am in control of my voice and image. Because of this I am giving agency and resistance to the historical suppression and absence of Indigenous and minority peoples within photographic images. I make my images my own by listening and following what my heart and mind feel is important to express.
CS: You work almost exclusively with self-portraiture now, and from early on your practice has combined performance with photography. Since Second-Self you’ve also incorporated sculpture, with wire ‘masks’ constructed from blind contour drawings, and that’s developed into these very elaborate costumes and structures. Can you talk about your interest in materiality and performativity? How does it feel to be transformed through these constructions?
MM: Working with readily available materials like cardboard, wire, feathers, bells, ribbon, fabrics, paper etc. makes me think about what I want to build in a totally new way, as the objects I may be building are not normally constructed using those kinds of materials. The process stretches my creativity and it takes several months to finish each sculpture. There is a lot of trial and error as I work to recreate a mental image or feeling that I have experienced with materials and methods that I have never used before, all while making sure each piece can hold up to the (increasingly forceful) demands of transportation, weather conditions and the movements of the ultimate performance.
Performing doesn’t come naturally to me as I am quite shy. In a way, within my photographs I am playing ‘dress up’ and that brings me back to the head space I would find myself in when I was a child, using my imagination playing with different toys and clothes, assuming the persona of various characters and playing out stories that I had created. It was one of my favorite things to do. I had no inhibitions. When I look at the photographs, I don’t usually recognize myself. I always feel like I look quite confident and not the shy person I usually feel like in my day to day life.
CS: How much do you lose yourself in a ‘character’?
MM: Combining performance, construction and narrative enables me to wear different hats, literally and figuratively, throughout the process up until the exposure of the final photograph. The images are self-portraits to an extent, but each of these representations are also theatrical and reveal different, new aspects of myself I wasn’t aware of; it’s a mixture of reality and fiction.
With each subject I embody, this balance shifts depending on the natural environment and the costumes I’m wearing. I don’t really lose myself when I am in these moments as I am thinking of so many things, and I don’t plan too much of how the image will look as it changes when I get to the location, spontaneity comes into play and I have to think on my feet. All of these elements come together in the moment to create something which may look like it’s part of a film, a dream sequence, a storybook or a recounting of history. They’re private performances through which I am trying to respond to memory and to emotion.
CS: Connection to the land is an important theme in your work, in As Immense as the Sky, your fears about our damage to the Earth lead you to seek knowledge from places of ancestral knowledge. I get the sense from the images of the environment not being passive—of it holding more knowledge and power than we are able to usually see. How would you characterize your relationship to the natural world? Did the process of creating this body of work change that?
MM: I have enjoyed many opportunities since I was young that have allowed me to build a relationship with nature, away from the city. Lengthy and remote camping trips, tree planting, and short hiking excursions in nature all built a foundation of love and respect for the natural world that has found its way into my artwork. I also think Plains Cree culture has instilled in me the value of listening, learning from and respecting our surroundings.
Many of the places that I visited for As Immense as the Sky were familiar to me and my family, and some were sites that I was experiencing for the first time. They were very powerful, overwhelming places, with all kinds of ancestral life, history and wisdom buried within them predating human existence. I spoke with Knowledge Keepers within my Plains Cree community, family members, friends, and did other research. All of the images have a story to them. I feel that my relationship with the natural world and the history written in the landscape has deepened. The feeling of urgency to protect the plants, animals and waters has become even more front of mind for me.
CS: Your images are so visually complex, you’re in front of the camera, and often they are in remote locations. Can you speak about your technical and logistical process—do you use lighting, an assistant and so on? Your work feels very ‘real’ or tactile, it seems like most of the ‘magic’ is in the construction of what’s in front of the lens, but do you sometimes use digital manipulation to get what you’re looking for?
MM: My technical process is not that complicated. I work with one or two people, so my ‘team’ is very small. I have to pack light and only take what I need as usually we have to walk some distance to get to each location. Sometimes the approach is made in the pitch dark of early morning, waiting for the sun to come up so everything we are carrying has to be pretty minimal—just my camera, a couple of lenses, tripod and the different props/costumes. I don’t use any artificial lights unless the image is taken within the studio, which has really only been one of my bodies of work—Second Self. I generally prefer to use only natural light, typically early in the morning or later in the evening.
I also don’t do much digital manipulation to the image, partly as my skills with Photoshop are not that advanced and I don’t mind the viewer seeing some of the raw elements of how I put everything together. The landscapes and the sky are how I find them in that moment, there is a great deal of serendipity in how the mood is created when I am on location. The land makes its own mark on every photograph, itself a misbehaving and stubborn member of my team.
CS: Color is so important in your photographs, from the hints of fleshiness beneath the monochrome paint in Second Self, to the stunning chromatic punctuations of the materials against the landscape in later works. In Wanderings many of the images feature red, and refer to a red thread connecting you to the past or an origin. Could you speak to your relationship with color and how it’s evolved through your practice?
MM: I am definitely drawn to color when I am selecting materials. I find that quite often my color choices stem from my love of pow wow costumes and the colorful garments worn by the dancers. I find that I do choose blues or reds more often. I think blues always make me think about the skies and the water and so it’s a reference within the costumes that connection and kinship I have with them.
Red is a powerful color that I find changes for me from image to image. One of the main reasons for always bringing red into the images is to represent my connection to my family and ancestors as an integral part of who I am. The red is also a reminder of the responsibility to pass down the knowledge that we learn from our elders to the next generation.
CS: What place does collaboration have in your practice? Tell me about the series of performances Wandering Together?
MM: I don’t often collaborate artistically with people. Sometimes I will work with different tradespeople on some of the props when I am not sure how to work with a certain material or if I need expert help with something like sewing a complicated garment.
Wandering Together has really been my only collaboration with another artist. It was a wonderful and challenging process. I worked with Johannes Zits, which was great and got me out of my comfort zone as I usually work alone and in a much less public way. Johannes has performed in front of a live audience many times. We worked on a live performance together that Johannes performed in conjunction with the opening of my series Wanderings (2015).
We used my Second Self series as inspiration, wherein I reconsider portraiture and explore the complexities of identity through blind contour self-portraits to evoke a world not normally seen by the naked eye.
Johannes drew a full body blind contour portrait of me which I then took and drew on top of Johannes’s body. This was my way of being part of the performance but not actually physically in front of the audience. We created a theatrical setting referencing the natural locations in my photographs to bring the outdoors inside. We constructed a tree in the middle of the gallery out of found branches bound together with cloth and ribbon. Johannes then lay beneath this tree upon a bed of sand. For the performance he lay motionless as people entered the space and then began to slowly make marks and lines with his body in the sand.
CS: What projects are you working on, or what ideas are you thinking about for the future?
MM: I am currently the artist in residence at the McCord Museum in Montreal and I am working on the creation of new work for them for an exhibition in March 2021, responding to their collection. I am still thinking of my ideas but what I can tell you at the moment is I have been inspired by a collection of glass bell jars housing taxidermied animals and plants from the late 19th century. I will explore the human fascination with restricting and silencing creatures and nature, asking what can be learned from this desire to capture and contain the natural world by freezing it in time. This will involve both new photographs and two installations in the gallery space. The latter constructions are rare for me to do, so I am excited to see how it turns out!