This article has been written with the support of the High Commission of Canada..
#CanadaGoesDigital – Meryl McMaster: As Immense As The Sky
- Arusa Qureshi
- 16 June 2020
The High Commission of Canada's Cultural Diplomacy team present a virtual look at the Canadian artist's work
As venues and galleries around the UK remain closed while we navigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the art world has been quick to adapt, moving festivals, exhibitions and events online for audiences to enjoy at home. As part of the High Commission of Canada's newly announced #CanadaGoesDigital programme of events, visual art lovers are invited to explore the works of renowned Canadian artist Meryl McMaster online, in the new Virtual Canada Gallery. As Immense as the Sky is the first solo presentation of McMaster's work in London, and thanks to the virtual gallery, you can see all the works featured in the show with exclusive, original curator commentary and audio-visual elements. Of Plains Cree, British and Dutch ancestry, McMaster's sculptural photography incorporates props, garments and performance, with the artist adopting fluid guises to explore the intersections of her Indigenous and European heritage. To find out more about the new virtual exhibition and McMaster's work, we caught up with curators Verity Seward and Oceana Masterman-Smith of The Baldwin Gallery.
For people that are unfamiliar with Meryl McMaster's work, how would you describe it and what do you find particularly special or unique about it?
Oceana Masterman-Smith: For me, while Meryl's work is performative, it is soulful and vulnerable and speaks to viewers both intellectually and emotionally. While all of her series challenge rigid ideas of colonial history, they also express themselves on a purely atheistic level, captivating viewers with raw beauty. Meryl has a unique ability to cross bridges, using subtle symbolism in her photographs to open up audiences to realities that they would never normally be exposed to. She brings her Plains Cree heritage into dialogue with her European heritage, and both of these into dialogue with her body and her contemporary experience of the world. Her art speaks on multiple levels, from still-performance art to sculptural photography, from the personal to the political. It is at once feminist, indigenous, environmental and deeply personal, making her body central to the viewer and her own experience yet never separate from the land itself. There's a candidness even in the meticulous control of her work. She's totally present, as she exposes her own face and simultaneously universalises it in the white-face tradition of mime. And the funny thing is, when you know Meryl, you'll find she's sweet and shy and the last person on earth to hog the camera.
How did you come to be involved as curators and how did you go about curating this exhibition?
OM-S: Having helped found The Baldwin Gallery, which is committed to bringing First Nations and Native American art into dialogue with the European art world, I had had my eye on Meryl's career for some time. In 2017 The Baldwin opened The Sublunary World, a group exhibition that brought together sculpture by Royal Academician Tim Shaw, photography by environmental Canadian photographer David Ellingsen and work from Meryl's series In-Between Worlds and Wanderings. After The Baldwin curated a solo exhibition for Indigenous Canadian artist Sonny Assu at Canada House, Verity and I spearheaded a proposal to bring McMaster to Canada House in 2020.
Verity Seward: After I finished my MA at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, I graduated with this niche specialism in contemporary Indigenous Canadian art for which – as you can imagine – job opportunities in the UK were not particularly forthcoming. I was lucky enough to discover The Baldwin and find a home there in the curatorial team. I hadn't come across Meryl's work before at that point and I remember seeing Victoria hanging above the fireplace in the gallery and feeling bowled over by it. Oceana and I worked together on numerous shows in London and abroad and we have since formed our own little independent curatorial collective. Our skillsets complement each other brilliantly; Oceana does all the front-end stuff, visuals and the talking to people – I do the words and the spreadsheets. Luckily we have very similar tastes so there haven't been any scraps (yet) when we're selecting which works to include.
As the first solo presentation of McMaster's work in London, what has the public response been like so far?
OM-S: After a hugely well-received launch, due to COVID-19, As Immense as the Sky closed to the public just one week after it had opened. However, we are planning on extending the show just as soon as the situation allows.
VS: I was so honoured to see such a great attendance for the opening back in March. It was magical to watch people encounter Meryl's work for the first time. Often, the photographs are not like anything people have seen before and they can be appreciated immediately on an aesthetic level and for their technical brilliance. We were incredibly fortunate to be joined by Rheanne Chartrand, Curator of Indigenous Art at McMaster Museum of Art and Dennison Smith, Novelist and Creative Director of The Baldwin in the panel discussion who brought up some fascinating perspectives on the work.
Are the themes exhibited in McMaster's work relevant to our current times? And if so, what can people learn from her work?
OM-S: Meryl's artwork is more relevant than ever. COVID-19 has exposed the realities of global inequality. Just as black communities have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, Native American communities in the United States have also suffered major blows. Meryl's photographs open up an understanding of the economic and social imbalances experienced by Indigenous peoples in a way that avoids rigid polarisation. This is the exact form of communication we need at the moment.
VS: The impacts of British colonialism are not taught widely or early enough here. I'm ashamed to admit how little I knew about what really went down in Canada (and so recently) before I lived there and the enduring legacies and systemic oppressions which still impact First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. The events of the past few weeks remind us that, obviously, white capitalist hegemonies are engrained and persist and how damaging it is to understand colonialism as something that is finished. McMaster engages with numerous events within Canada's violent history along with the cultural, political and environmental challenges society still faces in the present – the trauma of enforced assimilation and residential schools, the necessary preservation of Indigenous knowledge, the erasure of key species in the eco-system due to agricultural and extraction industries – to name a few. Her work addresses her European and Indigenous heritage and is born out of the conversations she has had with relatives and elders on both sides. This practice provides us not only with a valuable model for listening and engagement but offers British audiences a great entry-point into various complex topics in our colonial and capitalist reality, translated into an accessible and emotionally-resonant medium.
Can you explain how the virtual gallery works and how people can still enjoy the exhibition with the gallery being closed?
VS: The virtual gallery contains a few notes from me – a bit like a curator's tour that you don't have to stand up for. I chatted with Meryl for nearly two hours back in January to learn more about her process and the depth of research she undertook to create this series. There is just so much going on so I hope it's helpful to understand a bit of backstory to the landscapes, costumes, myths and family history that she is referring to in each image. Also, for As Immense as the Sky, Meryl wrote a series of accompanying poems which we've included along with readings in Plains Cree by Dorothy Thunder. Although you won't get as much of the visceral wow factor that you might by viewing the works in the gallery at their intended scale, I hope the virtual gallery will inspire people to slow down, look closer and appreciate the minute details and nuanced symbolism that makes each image so unique and multi-layered.
What are your personal favourite Meryl McMaster works and why?
OM-S: It's an odd thing, but when you work with a series over a long period of time, favourites come and go and change. When Meryl's work arrived at The Baldwin Gallery, Aphoristic Currents definitely was not my favourite! I was obsessed with a piece called Victoria. But by the time the exhibition had closed, I had developed a deep attachment to Aphoristic Currents. To date, it is the only artwork that I couldn't say goodbye to. Rather than seeing the last in the edition sell, I decided to purchase it myself. In Aphoristic Currents, Meryl's head is imprisoned in a massive Victorian ruff (a nod to her European heritage), which is constructed from twisted newspapers, bringing us firmly into the present, with all its horrors and hopes. It hangs in my bedroom and every day I see something new and I appreciate it in fresh ways.
VS: Its got to be Cartography of the Unseen – the whooping crane in the sandhills of Saskatchewan. This was the first image I saw when Meryl shared the preview of her latest series with us and I thought: 'Goddamn, she's still got it'. There's something so surreal and unexpected about it. It's chic and playful all at once. Even though Meryl is often tackling various heavy issues, she always approaches her work with humour and tenderness that instils so much hope.
The exhibition, Meryl McMaster: As Immense As The Sky was generously made possible with the help of The Baldwin Gallery, Ikon Gallery and The High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom. All images are courtesy of the artist. Enter the Virtual Canada Gallery now.