Picturing The Red Line

An Interview with Meryl McMaster

Meryl McMaster knows what’s in a name. The names she has picked for three of her main bodies of work— “Ancestral,” “In-Between Worlds” and “Wanderings”—all articulate a relation to her past and present identity as it emerges from a self-described “dual heritage.” Her father is Plains Cree and her mother is European, so she has focused her photo-based work on understanding and then addressing the two cultures that are a part of who she is. The interest in her double-speaking has been intense: her touring exhibition, called “Confluence,” organized by the Carleton University Art Gallery and curated by Heather Anderson, will have been to three other Canadian cities before its final venue in late September of this year. Her photographs turn up regularly in group exhibitions. She is ubiquitous.

Meryl McMaster, Edge of a Moment, 2017, giclée print, 60 x 94.4 inches. All images courtesy of the artist, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain.

McMaster’s in-betweenness is a measure of both identity and time, and its nature is never fixed. That is why her performed photographs appear so enigmatic; they are not about anything we can definitively recognize or name. They show us characters who embody attitudes—she calls them “temperaments”—and who play out ambiguous roles. Their attitudes run a spectrum from vulnerability (Anima, 2012) to defiance (Weight of Shadow, 2015) and from anger (Truth to Power, 2017) to accommodation (Under the Infinite Sky, 2015). Their roles are equally diverse: the shamanic animal helper (Wingeds Calling, 2012); the holder of knowledge (Time’s Gravity, 2015); the wanderer in nature (Avian Wanderer, 2015); the figure who drums in two cultures (Brumal Tattoo, 2013). They are effective because of their elusiveness and their refusal to settle into comfortable realizations.

McMaster’s first body of work, “Ancestral,” which she completed while still an undergraduate at OCAD University, avoided the kind of Aboriginal stereotype rampant in the photographs of Edward S Curtis and the paintings of George Catlin. Her engagement was a combined reclamation of Indigenous identity and a dramatic re-presentation of what it might look like to be Indigenous. In making the images she used her own face, that of her father (the distinguished curator, critic and artist Gerald McMaster), as well as depictions of animals. These hybrid images were extremely effective in layering familial nurture and cultural nature. No less significantly, they were captivating and unsettling. Her images wander on two sides of consciousness; she is a dream catcher and a harbinger of darker recognitions.

McMaster performs her culture in a manner that allows her to embody a range of possible narratives. It is a practice-in-progress. This condition is less because of her age (she has just turned 30) than a measure of her attitude towards artmaking. A wanderer by inclination and choice, her performances cover topographies familiar to her experience inside two cultures. In images like Brumal Tattoo and Victoria, she can inhabit both simultaneously; the drumbeat she is dressed to perform is both martial and familial. “Within Indigenous culture,” she says in making a connection to the rhythms of the powwow, “the sound of the drum represents the heartbeat.” The blood-rich colour that splatters the snow is a reminder of both damage and celebration. The images make a quiet and subtle impression. On occasion, they make much more visual and linguistic noise. In Truth to Power she presents yet another self-portrait, this time without costume. She is standing within an ordered row of trees—a sort of natural prison—and from that enclosed vantage point, her outward gaze is uncompromised and defiant. Next to her is a poem called “The Onondaga Madonna,” a sonnet published in 1926 by Duncan Campbell Scott, a recognized Canadian poet and career civil servant who was the enthusiastic architect of the residential school system. The Madonna in his poem, a member of “a weird and waning race,” is herself of mixed ancestry, and her son, “paler than she,” is the “latest promise of her nation’s doom.” McMaster effects a brilliant translation in repurposing the sonnet’s opening line. In her self-portrait, she stands in “full-throated careful pose.” Her photographic identity shares the Madonna’s burning passion, but the race she is part of has changed the wording of Scott’s poisoned poem. Weird and waning has been replaced by winged and winning. Next to her powerful self-portrait, the sestet of the poem slowly disappears.

Ancestral 10, 2008, digital chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches.

The following interview was conducted by phone to Ottawa on March 25, 2018.

Border Crossings: I’m assuming that, given who your father is, art played a role in your upbringing.

Meryl Mcmaster: Yes. When I was quite young my dad was a practising artist and he was working at the Museum of Civilization. My parents had moved from Saskatchewan to Ottawa before I was born. I remember that he had a studio in the back part of the house and I would sit beside him and do my own artworks. The house was a very creative space in which to grow up, owing to the artistic background of both my mother and father. I was an only child and I was often on my own. I think my current imaginative state reaches back to those moments when I was exploring the world through role playing and creating scenarios.

Were you the sort of child who made costumes and played dress-up roles?

The confidence to do that came when I was alone and no one was watching. I was a very shy kid. I would be confident talking to all these characters who were present in my imagination. My parents put together a great dress-up trunk of their old clothes and things they had found, and I would dress up in them. But I never did any theatre and I shied away from being in the spotlight and I avoided performing. I loved theatre but I wanted to be behind the scenes, so I was attracted to set and costume design but never to being in front of the camera. Even today, performing doesn’t come naturally to me, so I find it hard to believe that I put myself in that situation. I feel very vulnerable when I do it.

Buffalo, 2010, digital chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches.

Was there a point where you actually decided you wanted to be an artist?

I don’t know whether there was one particular moment when I made that decision. I think it came to me naturally. It wasn’t until my early teens that photography really jumped out. I had a toy camera when I was young and I pretended to take pictures of the world around me, and I kept little notebooks. When I was going away to university, my mom was clearing out all this stuff and I found this notebook where I had written that I wanted to move to Paris with my dog and write poetry. School was extremely challenging for me because I’m dyslexic, so being a writer or a journalist or even a scientist was going to be difficult. But I loved art, and it was something that I could escape into and that I was successful at.

You come from a family that you describe as “dual heritage.” Was that awareness of being from two cultures a constant?

I think the need to understand who you are and where you’ve come from is normal. I grew up far away from both my paternal and maternal families, but we would go back to Regina and Battleford, Saskatchewan, to visit family and we’d participate in powwows and other family gatherings. My parents were always telling stories about their families. When I was very young the feeling I got was that the two cultures were inclusive, but when I reached school age the harder questions about my two cultures became evident. My parents had tried to educate me about what I was going to be taught in school, but it was confusing. I remember watching Disney movies, like Pocahontas, and being troubled by the stereotypes. Was that how I was supposed to look? As a child you don’t really understand, but as you grow older you begin to ask more questions. My family was certainly very open and I certainly didn’t experience any division in it. The guilt I felt was something I brought on myself.

What did you feel guilty about?

In my teens I was learning about Canada’s difficult past, a past that could have involved my own ancestors. So if I wanted to be proud of my mother’s family and connected to my European roots, I realized I might be abandoning my Indigenous side. It was as if I was involved in some kind of betrayal. I struggled with how to acknowledge and be present in both sides of myself.

Wingeds Calling, 2012, digital chromogenic print, 36 x 50 inches.

Jon Lockyer, who has written insightfully about your work, claims that mixed-blood people aren’t allowed ambiguity. They’re allowed only bifurcation and they’re fixed in “a straitjacket of history.” In his analysis, coming from two cultures may be a rich heritage, but is it also a trap?

I have struggled with reconciling my feelings about the past while also trying to be a contemporary Indigenous person of mixed background. The struggle is to not hang onto those negative feelings. Part of that was overcoming a lot of the confused feelings I have about my ancestry. It was something I wanted to explore in my art. There are always gaps and biases in our relationship to the past, and it was through my art that I could explore and expose them. It was a way of creating a conversation with myself as well as with other people. First of all, it comes from a very personal place. Most of us have a mixed background, so we’re all asking similar self-directed questions. I’ve learned that my two different heritages are not always going to completely align, and in order to move forward I have to celebrate those differences.

In your third year at OCAD you picked up self-portraiture in a serious way. What allowed you to move as quickly and as confidently as you did?

I don’t know if I had that feeling of confidence when I was making the work. When I was starting out I loved photography and I thought I was heading towards doing portraiture in some way. I wanted to use other people and I was also interested in landscape photography, but I felt a sense of boredom and a feeling of disconnection with my images. I was asking what was the voice I wanted to have, what did I want to say? I think the turning point was a class in third year in 2008 with Nicholas Pye, who is a well-respected photographer. This class was very open-ended and in it I created the “Ancestral” portraits that are in the “Confluence” travelling exhibition. I thought I would project my personal ancestors onto my own face. I was interested in surreal imagery and I wanted to see what this would look like and whether it was even possible. There was a lot of trial and error. I painted my face so that the image would come up better. But the roadblock I ran up against was finding usable images of my own family. I wanted to explore my Indigenous ancestry through portraiture, so I was specifically looking at my father’s side of the family. But when I scanned and blew up the images, I couldn’t get a lot of detail. So I went looking for a broader range of Indigenous images. I was surprised at how the images turned out. The “Ancestral” images changed how I viewed photography. I was too shy to ask people to sit for me, which is why I started using myself. It worked out because the ideas I wanted to talk about were very personal.

In a way “Ancestral” is about the question of representation. By using photographers like Edward S Curtis and Will Soule and painter George Catlin and their stereotypical ways of representing Indigenous people, you open up a whole new territory.

Yes. I was grappling with and exploring a lot of different feelings in that body of work. The project became much bigger than a personal look at my own family when it evolved into the larger question of how popular culture misrepresents people. It was eye-opening to be introduced to Catlin and Curtis and Soule. In a sense I wanted to reclaim my ancestors from their images and move away from this romanticizing and classification. In a lot of the portraits I was also playing with the viewer. Most of the subjects in the historical images were passive, so the “Ancestral” images deal with the gaze. My subjects are looking out at the viewer. So it flipped around the way the Indigenous body was represented in the Western photographic tradition. I was also reconnecting with my Indigenous ancestors and having them step through me into the present.

Another aspect of the ancestral legacy comes through animals: the buffalo, the horse, and the fawn.

The animal world is particularly important in Indigenous storytelling. I was interested in gathering these high-resolution digital images of animals. I was trying to be more aware of our natural surroundings and the drastic human impact on the environment, especially from colonization. The warning is that if we continue, our interaction with animals could become memory and our only experience of the animal world will be through simulated images or environments. So I was exploring that kind of relationship.

Avian Wanderer II, 2015, giclée print, 20 x 30 inches.

That carries on in a work like Wingeds Calling, where you dress as a raven?

Yes. Animal-like figures show up in my recent body of work. I’m this lone figure in the landscape, and animals, especially birds, are my companions and protectors. I look at them as messengers. The animals enter in different ways. They also bring this storybook feeling to the work that takes me back to those moments of exploration and freedom I had as a child. They’re a reminder to always hold onto those moments when you become lost in your thoughts and you engage the sense of imaginative play. We inevitably lose this as we become adults. In some deep way I think we all hold onto that child’s world, and my hope is that these images trigger that memory.

It isn’t just birds but butterflies and bees. You love flying things. Do they stand in for the flight of the imagination?

The bees represented a lot of different things. They are wanderers because they go out exploring for nectar but they return home, and that metaphor of going away but always coming back to where you’re from is one that I relate to. When I juxtapose the animal form with the human form, I like to create a sense where it isn’t clear who has the upper hand. The animals aren’t being managed for human benefit because they could actually be controlling me. They can interrupt the space or be a part of it. Also, the honeybee is not native to North America, so I was playing with the idea that they are colonizers in animal form.

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Volume 37, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #146, published June 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.