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Q&A: Photographer Meryl McMaster discusses her work, which is featured in Vaughan's McMichael Canadian Art Collection

A Q&A interview with the Plains Cree photographer
March 28, 2023
Brian Capitao

The McMichael Art Collection in Vaughan is called “Home to the Art of Canada,” showcasing art that is culturally significant to Canadian identity.

Recently, the Vaughan Citizen interviewed an artist whose work has been featured at the art museum. Meryl McMaster, a photographer with Plains Cree ancestry, utilizes her art to challenge the viewers’ relationship to the environment and perception of colonial history. Her work challenges the notion of ethnographic objectivity.

McMaster’s self-portraits are evocative works of art that create a surrealist feeling captivating her audience. Often, they feel like they are displacing you to another time, with her elaborate garments used to underscore performativity.

“I kind of employ this dream-like quality in terms of creating and telling these harder narratives in this dream-like way to kind of bring the viewer into these little moments that have many layers,” said Meryl McMaster.

How would you describe your work in your own words?

I would describe it as self-portrait, performative images where I’m photographing myself mostly in site-specific locations that hold meaning for me and my family and our eclectic history.

What are some major themes of your work?

I look a lot at how one kind of forms one’s sense of self and identity. And I kind of look at that through different avenues such as one’s history or lineage and looking at how where we come from and how the land informs who we are as well.

Would you say there’s an environmental aspect to your work as?

Yes, for sure. I think our collective part in living on this Earth -- it’s important to be caretakers of this planet. And I think that can be quickly disregarded with the other kind of busyness of life. But I think that it’s really important for us to pay attention to our surroundings and connect with the land and animals. We all have to work together and live together.

I noticed a butterfly motif in your pieces. What is the symbolism behind that?

So over the years, I've used butterflies within my images, within the gallery space of McMichael you'll see them kind of moving throughout the physical gallery space. But a little while ago, I was told about how in Cree storytelling butterflies are spirit beings and they represent one's kind of soul or ancestors' soul. So I kind of learned from that and kind of integrated that into part of the storytelling of my images of these spirit beings.

Do you think giving your art a dream-like quality maybe makes it easier for like the subconscious to accept these things more as part of our history?

Yeah, it's just a different way of entering again these conversations...So I think back to when you're young or when you're reading a story or being told a story you create in your kind of imagination the characters or what your surroundings kind of look like as you're told an oral story. And I think that dreaming, that imagining, that is something that has always been part of my upbringing and part of my life.

What role do the landscapes play in your portraits?

I started out in my early work working in landscapes that were close to where I lived in, that were familiar to me, and more kind of creating this feeling of times that had been really impactful in my life, being out on the land and traveling and exploring different landscapes. And then as my process evolved, landscapes kind of took a different kind of place within my work and became a larger part of my research and kind of ideas.

So, yeah, within my photographs filmed now, a majority of the time, not always, but a majority of the time the landscapes are site specific. So either, they're important moments in our collective history as Canadians,  that maybe are widely known or other locations, that again, are part of our history but are lesser known kind of stories that I am inspired by.

What is one thing you would like someone to take away while looking at your work?

One thing I think about is, again, that storytelling element, that moment that people enter into these spaces, whether it's a gallery space, sometimes I show my work outside in public spaces that might kind of interrupt kind of your daily life as you're walking home from work.

More simply, I think I just want someone to have this opportunity to just like for a moment just forget about their kind of everyday life or maybe their struggles that they're working through and the stresses and just kind of go down their own dreaming narrative and have a moment.