Dreams of home: Meryl McMaster explores identity, family ties in new exhibit

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Artist Meryl McMaster was always told that her great-grandmother had beautiful handwriting.

It was apparently one of the memories that her father, renowned artist and curator Gerald McMaster, always had of his grandmother and perhaps evidence of the artistic DNA she passed down to her grandson and great-granddaughter. Meryl eventually got to see this for herself. Her great-grandmother, Bella Wuttunee, lived in Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan from the late 1890s until 1980.  It was a difficult time. There was poverty and other struggles after the Indian Act passed and treaties were signed. There were also, of course,  residential schools and other attempts to wipe out the language, dance and culture of the Cree people.

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None of these hardships are outlined in a diary Wuttunee kept that was recently discovered by the family. McMaster and her father came into possession of old photographs of three generations of grandmothers: Lena McMaster, Wuttunee and Maltida Schmidt, Meryl’s great-great-grandmother, a few years ago. The three grandmothers were the spark of inspiration for nikihci-âniskotâpân bloodline, a new photography exhibit by McMaster that runs at Glenbow at the Edison until Sept. 1.

The diary is in Wuttunee’s handwriting and offered some fairly conventional reports on day-to-day life in Red Pheasant in the 1940s and 1950s They were short, to-the-point descriptions about farming, the weather, raising children, visits with family and friends and food preparation. There was nothing about the trauma or difficulties the Cree people were going through. So it was surprising when the family also unearthed a mysterious, four-page handwritten letter that was written by Wuttunee in 1970 or so.  It was mysterious because no one really knows who she was writing to, or whether she ever intended to deliver it. It also offered a much more personal chronicle of her life and struggles.

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“The letter talked about how she was widowed at a young age having several children,” says McMaster, who was born and raised in Ottawa. “It was talking about that hardship, not only being alone to raise her children and take care of them but also, later in life, trying to build a house of her own and trying to get money she was owed from the government but never received. In order to build a house for herself, she had to sell off all of her belongings and all of her animals in order to do this. She definitely had very strong resilient voice in this letter, very frustrated and angry feelings within her words. She was trying to speak to people who were not Indigenous and try to have them understand the difficulty they were going through.”

The letter, diary and photographs are a part of bloodline, a multi-media show that also features McMaster’s striking, large-scale photographs and videos.  The artifacts were discovered a few years ago after Lena McMaster died, but the exhibit continues an ongoing journey for McMaster in exploring themes of identity and ties to family. Her work has often explored her mixed nêhiyaw/Métis and Anglo/Dutch ancestry. The photography — which is either life-size or larger-than-life — does not follow a linear narrative but the most recent works offer a distinct sense of place. They were taken in the prairies — most in Saskatchewan where her father’s side of the family is from, although one was taken near Lethbridge at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump — and all feature McMaster as a subject. Ever since she was a student at Ontario College of Art & Design University in Toronto, the artist has experimented with the idea of the self-portrait. It obviously plays into themes of identity and also allows McMaster to explore performance art and clothing design. Initially, however, there was a more pragmatic reason.

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“I remember back to times where we would have a project where we were asked to do a portrait and would ask someone to sit for you or take photographs of people outside on the street or something like that,” says McMaster, whose work has been acquired by The National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallary of Ontario, among others. “I was always kind of dreading that kind of project when I had to ask someone to pose for me and I had to articulate some idea that I had. So it really came out of that shyness to engage with them. So partly it became more technical, working with myself. Even though I was not comfortable in front of the camera, at least I could fumble my way through and learn and experiment and not worry about having to direct someone else.”

Nevertheless, it evolved and became a trademark of her work. Because she didn’t feel like a natural in front of the camera, McMaster would take pains to “disguise” herself, delving into a character to fight her insecurities.

Meryl McMaster
Meryl McMaster, Calling Me Home, 2019. This piece is part of the exhibition Meryl McMaster: nikihci-âniskotâpân bloodline, on from June 8 to Sept 1 at Glenbow at The Edison. This image is shown courtesy of the artist, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain. cal

“When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say in my works, it always came from a personal place,” she says. “It seemed like I was the only person speaking to these personal ideas of identity and self and I could be the only person to do that. That’s how it started and it just progressed and snowballed and it’s very integral to my process and practise. It has sort of grown into this performative way of working as well. It’s not just photography but really incorporates a lot of different artistic ways of working: working with the landscape, working with the land and then working in a performative space — a dream-like space — in a cinematic way.”

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In the 2017 photograph Edge of a Moment, which was shot in Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, McMaster is pictured in the badlands. Her face is painted, she wears a top hat and a long black coat. The wool dress coat is adorned with felt cutouts featuring the footprints of the endangered prairie chicken.

“With that image, I was looking at the landscape and the history of that and incorporating those inspirations of the animals that have been culturally important to my ancestors,” McMaster says.

While much of the photography was from those trips to the prairies, bloodline is also a retrospective that features pieces dating back to 2008 when she was still a student and scoping out locations in Ottawa or Toronto.

Growing up in Ottawa, McMaster says her parents made an effort to introduce her to Cree culture, but it wasn’t always easy since she was so far away from her father’s ancestral home.

Meryl McMaster
Meryl McMaster, Remember The Sky You Were Born Under, 2022. This piece is part of the exhibition Meryl McMaster: nikihci-âniskotâpân bloodline, on from June 8 to Sept 1 at Glenbow at The Edison. This image is shown courtesy of the artist, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain. cal

She is now the mother of two daughters — ages one and four — and says her work is a way of preserving family history and Plains Cree culture for them and others in future generations.

“Growing up far away from my own communities (I felt) that disconnection and distance,” she says. “It wasn’t the same as it is now where you have a little more easy ways to access learning the language or communicating with people. It was hard to be immersed in my Plains Cree culture, because it’s very different nations that live here near Ottawa. I just think back to when I was young and always wishing I had been able to grow up and have those moments with mentors and community leaders and family.”

Nikihci-âniskotâpân bloodline will be at Glenbow at the Edison until Sept. 1.

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