Review: Meryl McMaster – Wanderings

There are many points of entry into Wanderings, Meryl McMaster’s exhibition at Artspace: Indigenous, feminist, fine art photography, media arts, performative, sculptural, interdisciplinary, Surrealist, multi-cultural, self-portrait, land-based, anthropomorphic, craft / material arts, post-literate.

The young Ottawa-based artist is one to watch, with numerous solo exhibitions already under her belt including the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in New York City, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, and a residency in Detroit, since completing a B.A. at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University in 2010.

Meryl McMaster - Weight of the Shadow

Meryl McMaster – Weight of the Shadow

“Meryl McMaster is, arguably, one of the most important young artists—Indigenous or otherwise—working in Canada right now,” says exhibition curator and Artspace Director Jonathan Lockyer. “McMaster’s work, in exceptionally subtle ways, creates spaces for the viewer to consider difficult questions concerning identity, history, colonialism, and Indigenous self-determination. As a white curator, McMaster’s work is a constant reminder for me that we all play a role in either upholding or deconstructing the ongoing legacy and effects of colonization in Canada.”

The offspring of Plains Cree and European bloodlines, McMaster weaves her dual experience into a compelling body of self-portraits in landscapes that leave the temporal behind, but manage to stay grounded, earthy. Within her carefully constructed and staged photographs, McMaster is wholly present.

The skilled hand of a craftsperson is evident in every frame, not only in the photographic execution, but through hand-stitched garments; accoutrements of ropes, rags, fabric braids; headgear made of antlers, birds, bees, sticks, and moss; and the signifying device of a red thread recurring through the series of sixteen images. Renouncing ego and judgement, she enacts a re-invented personal history of indigeneity, and navigates a cusp of past and future, a realm of both being and becoming: the colonial gaze has been disrupted.

“The work in Wanderings allows for an oscillation between identities, and puts forward an assertion that for Indigenous people, identity has never been static,” writes Lockyer. “Rather than allow herself to become lost or disempowered within the spaces between contrasting identities, McMaster creates a visual narrative of empowerment.”

Unlike Cindy Sherman’s staged self-portraits, McMaster’s tableaus appear less a form of self-aware play-acting or identity dress-up, than a means to fully inhabit her own multi-dimensional self. She embodies the idea of survivance through prisms of identity, by portraying herself as both mythic icon and pilgrim, inextricable from the natural world.

The odyssey is implied in Desired Path: twin sets of boots in motion dismantle time, superimposed and translucent on the landscape; the red thread, a lifeline, is scribbled against the snow, unravelling, marking, connecting lifeforms, the past and present.

Meryl McMaster - Desired Path

Meryl McMaster – Desired Path

The triptych Avian Wanderer is a study of hybrids. In three views, she rides high in the saddle of a bicycle along a hardscrabble dirt trail through a winter field. The bicycle is equipped with wings constructed of saplings wrapped with red yarn, reminiscent of a bee, implying more than one mode of metaphorical travel. A headdress of black birds flies about her head—guides, guardians, portents, knowledge keepers, companions on the road. Her indigo dress billows out behind her like a sail. Its seam remains undisguised—reminding us how this manifold came to be, by stitching together, uniting parts.

Forearms and hands are wrapped in muslin rags secured with a safety pin in Weight of the Shadow. The view is of her back, strong and determined, pulling the canoe behind her with a red rope, knotted and repaired with multiple coloured strands. The hard labour is evident, but necessary. (McMaster tells me the temperature was -40°​C that day.) But the sky and snow before her are bright, the shadows are long, and her skirt is adorned with bells.

Meryl McMaster - Avian Wanderer III

Meryl McMaster – Avian Wanderer III

“Landscape is more than a static geographic place … it is inside us and it is about movement as she marks through places of her past and present,” wrote William Kingfisher on Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s Writing Landscape in the exhibition catalogue for jiigbiig: at the edge where the water and the earth meet, a 2012 Art Gallery of Peterborough exhibit.

McMaster’s photos bring to mind the same ‘place between’ concept that Dion Fletcher’s copper sandals, marked by walking along a rocky shore, illustrate. (Viage, McMaster’s photograph from her 2010 series entitled In-Between Worlds depicts her at water’s edge in sandals made of sticks.)

“How can Indigenous artists engage with the non-Indigenous world while maintaining their difference?” asks Dr. Gerald McMaster, recently appointed Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Visual Culture & Curatorial Practice at OCAD University, and also McMaster’s father.

Meryl McMaster has answered that question on many levels in this exhibit, heartfully, unambiguously, without a saying a word.


Meryl McMaster’s Wanderings runs until April 8 at Artspace (more info).

Come to Artspace March 31 at 7pm for a curator talk by Artspace Director Jonathan Lockyer (more info).


All images © Meryl McMaster, used with permission.

Fields marked with an * are required
Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.