Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky Review

Calling Me Home (all works 2019) shows a figure dressed in a buffalo mask trimmed with fringing and bandaged horns. She holds a coiled rope, one end of which disappears from the bottom of the photograph’s frame, while the other vanishes into a lake beyond. The poem written to accompany the work recalls the tale of a lost human child who is raised by buffalo and forced to choose between his two families. He ultimately transforms into a stone buffalo, belonging to both and to neither. The stone, a sacred site, has since been obliterated to build the manmade lake depicted.

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Meryl McMaster, Harbourage For a Song, 2019. Digital C-Print, 40’’ x 60’’, courtesy the artist.

This photograph foregrounds tethering threads or ties. These play a significant role within the practice of Meryl McMaster, who on her paternal side is part of the nêhiyawak community (Plains Cree) and of the Siksika First Nation (Alberta, Canada), with British and Dutch maternal lineage. Literal and metaphorical tethers to complex family histories, conflicting cultural narratives and the debt that both hold to the varied landscapes of their origins are manifest within the artist’s vivid, performative photographs, all shot in some of the most remote and beautiful parts of Canada.

In many ways, Calling Me Home is indicative of the photographs on display in McMaster’s first UK exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery. The 21 portraits, each showing the artist alone, are rooted in the landscapes of her personal heritage, including significant and early sites in Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Ontario. At the Edge of This Immensity, for instance, in which she carries a boat filled with birds upon her shoulder as she gazes out on to Gore Bay, Ontario, references the migration journeys made by McMaster’s Dutch ancestors.

The works feature exquisite marshes, sand dunes, snow fields, lakesides and grassy plains, themselves protagonists in McMaster’s stories. They are enriched and counter-balanced by crafted costumes and props that emphasise mythologies tied to these locales. Fish, birds, mammals and insects give form to ancient tales and contemporary socio-political and environmental concerns. While locations are specifically named (often evocatively), the timescales McMaster works with are more elastic. Identity, too, is something to be tried on and tested out.

Of Universes We Have Just One takes place in the misty, snow-blanketed Fool’s Paradise/Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto. In the work, McMaster is encrusted with orbs that obscure her body and transform her into a shining silver column. Her black hooded robe is covered with delicate red mayflies in What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth I, shot in Misery Bay/Manitoulin Island, one of the few images in which she stares into the camera’s lens. In one of the most striking pieces, Harbourage for a Song, McMaster carries a staff stacked high with cardboard bird boxes, a number of which are also balanced atop her head. The boxes provide temporary homes to canaries and goldfinches, birds which have been historically exploited in the advance of heavy industry, and here, McMaster stands at the edge of a coastal meadow, a protector defiant in stance.

The photographs emphasise, with unnerving timeliness, conflicted senses of identity, representation, migration, survival and belonging. Despite the complexity of her concerns, McMaster handles each of these threads with the utmost sensitivity and precision, creating worlds to escape to and to escape from.

 

Commissioned and published by Photomonitor, 20 January 2020.

Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky
Ikon Gallery
4 December 2019 – 23 February 2020

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