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Meryl McMasters’ World

by Emma Renaud

This fall, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts presents Elles Autochones, a collection dedicated to the work of Indigenous women artists.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I was going to walk into. Being an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, you would expect quite a large room with an almost over-the-top exhibition. The work of Ontario-based artist Meryl McMaster, however, was exhibited in a rather small room with white walls decorated with her photos. There was this sense of comfort in being in a quiet, quasi-private area, knowing that Jean-Paul Gauthier and Picasso were displayed right next door. A sense of intimacy and togetherness with the artist was immediately created.

Elles Autochones, exhibition view. Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal.

Meryl McMaster grew up in a bi-cultural environment - and it shows in her artwork. Her identity conflicts between a native Siksika father and a British-Dutch Canadian mother, as she opts to find herself through the art of photography. As the stories behind her photos are based on personal experiences and subjective viewpoints, she is the protagonist of her art. In a series of auto portraits, McMaster depicts herself indirectly through metamorphosing into a dream-catcher or a raven-like creature. 

Although the artist herself is usually the central focus of her work, she heavily stresses the importance of nature, which she adopts as her own canvas. Specifically in the photos presented at the MMFA, from her “In-Between Worlds” (2010-2015) and “Wanderings” (2015) series, she beautifully captures the whiteness of snow, harnessing and utilizing the power of landscape as her background. 

Meryl McMaster, Wingeds Calling Variation I, from the In-Between Worlds series, 2012, 91,4 x 127cm. Digital print.

In Wingeds Calling Variation I, nature is represented through the gloomy fog in the background - indeed, so foggy that the distinction between the ground, the river and the sky becomes hard to separate. McMaster transforms herself into a mystical black bird, sharply contrasting the predominantly white photograph and bringing a sense of mystery back into the work.

Meryl McMaster, Dream Catcher, from the Wanderings series, 2015, 81,28 x 15,24cm. Archival pigment print on watercolour paper.

Dream Catcher shows the artist in harmony with her surroundings: her hair is like a nest, her face looks peaceful, and the overall photo emanates a much warmer feeling. While nature remains a prevalent concept in the artist’s work, the notion of time is also here. Depending on the photo, time seems to have stopped - or, on the contrary - continuously passes by. In Time’s Gravity, for example, it is suspended: the artist holds diaries of illustrated calendars, which she has filled with pages from History books. This act pays tribute to her Indigenous ancestors and hopes that their past will be commemorated. In other works like Aphoristic Currents, present-day newspapers featuring subjects that are of personal interest to her stand in as elements representing the passage of time. 

Meryl McMaster, Aphoristic Currents from the In-Between Worlds series, 2013, 91,4 x 127cm. Digital print.

Meryl McMaster, Anima from the In-Between Worlds series, 2012, 91,4 x 91,4cm. Digital print.

Though each of her photographs has its peculiarities, she omits subtlety and decides to show her face and body to the audience in most of them. The creativity of her work also does not stop at the mise-en-scène of her artwork. It extends through individual opinion and interpretation - which only makes her art more fun and inclusive. By not imposing a direct narrative on each image, Meryl McMaster allows us to be creative and come to an understanding of her artwork ourselves. 

Meryl McMaster will be exhibited until December 3rd at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Free entrance.  

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