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Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky

To honour National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Embassy of Canada in Washington, DC is proud to present: As Immense as the Sky, a virtual gallery of work by Meryl McMaster. The exhibition was originally developed and unveiled in early 2020 in the Canada Gallery at the High Commission of Canada in London, before the Covid-19 global pandemic forced its closure and modification to an online show.

Along with the beautiful images, the exhibition also includes never-before-seen artist commentary and audio-visual elements. We would like thank the artist, Meryl McMaster, curators Verity Seward and Oceana Masterman-Smith, and our colleagues at Canada House for allowing us to bring this collection to a U.S. audience. The exhibition will run through October 31st, 2021.

Curator’s notes by Verity Seward

Meryl McMaster is a Canadian artist, living and working in Ottawa. She describes her work as sculptural photography - incorporating props, constructed garments and performance to examine her sense of identity and selfhood. McMaster has dual heritage and is Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) and a member of the Siksika First Nation on her father’s side and has British, Dutch and Scottish ancestry on her mother’s side.

For her latest series, As Immense as the Sky (2019), McMaster set out to gather the wisdom and folklore of relatives on both sides of her heritage. She traveled to sites of ancestral significance across Canada following waterways and ancient pitching trails where social, cultural and environmental histories have collided. Her self-portraits reanimate mythology and family anecdotes through her own personally transformative journey through the landscape.

The series draws upon themes of memory, migration, genealogy and time as McMaster retraces the footsteps of her ancestors. Her images explore the intersections of both her Indigenous and European heritage whilst revealing Canada’s conflicted colonial legacies.

To listen to alongside McMaster’s images is the music of Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher. A member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Jeremy first did music studies in Halifax before taking a chance to work in the archives at the Canadian Museum of History, painstakingly transcribing Wolastoq songs from 1907 wax cylinders. His debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is a response to what he heard in deep dialogue with the voices of his ancestors. Although from different indigenous backgrounds, Dutcher and McMaster share a similar desire to engage in new ways with their ancestral past.

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On the Edge of This Immensity - 2019, Digital C-Print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm

On the Edge of this Immensity by Meryl McMaster

On the Edge of This Immensity

Travelling into unknown land.
Birds as companions and guides.
Retracing ancestral steps.
On paths walked many times.
Great migrations across land and water.
Connecting with kinfolk.
On journeys that lead here.
Time passes by in cycles.
On journeys leading to my being.

Place: Gore Bay, Manitoulin Island, Ontario

kisipāyihk ōta kā misāk

pimācihowin ēsi askiya mōy kā kiskēhtamihk.
pēyisīsak niwīcīwākanak ēkwa itohtahikēwak.
kayāsi osci tahkiskācikanēwina.
mēskanāsihk kā pimohtēhk mihcētwā.
mihcēt misi pimācihowina sāpohtēhk askiy ēkwa nipīhk.
nakiskawihcik wahkōmākanak.
ēta pimācihowina ōta kā takohtēmakahki.
tipahikan māmēscipayin tāpitaw.
pimācihowina itohtēmakahki nitahcikohk.

tāntē: Gore Bay, Manitoulin Island, Ontario

Curator's Notes

This image speaks to the great migrations that have taken place across water over multiple centuries. McMaster considers the many families and migrants who have entered into Canada on a boat and explored out of it, including her own ancestors.

Taken at Gore Bay, near where McMaster’s maternal great grandmother was born, McMaster had never visited this area of Ontario when she began the project. Through her research she learnt that, on her mother’s side, her ancestors had emigrated to North America by boat from the Netherlands hundreds of years ago. Initially settling in New York, at around the time of the American Revolution they fled across the border to Canada, settling first around Picton, Ontario, later moving North to Manitoulin Island. Finally they travelled westward to Saskatchewan where they settled permanently and became farmers.

Birds reoccur in McMaster’s photography, frequently acting as animal companions or guides on her journeys. Cradling a vessel of starlings and crows, McMaster leads the birds to a safe place, championing the need for us to protect or care for our natural surroundings.

From a Still Unquiet Place - 2019, Digital C-Print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm

From a Still Unquiet Place by Meryl McMaster

From a Still Unquiet Place

Beckoning a connection to the history and culture of this place.
Seeking those who came before.
A childhood home.
A place that has experienced times of peace and struggle.
Carrying ancestors.

Place: Mkisiw-wacîhk (Red Pheasant First Nation), Saskatchewan

osci ēta kīyapic mōy kā kāmwātahk

ē nitonikātēk ta mistowinamihk osci kā kī ispayik ēkwa sihcikēwin osci ōta.
ē nitoniwēhcik kā kī pē nīkānohtēcik.
awāsisi wīkowin
ēta kā kī wāpahtamihk pēyahtikēyimowin ēkwa ayimohowin.
ē tahkonēhcik kā nīkānohtēcik.

tāntē: mīkisiw-wacīhk (Red Pheasant First Nation), Saskatchewan

Curator's Notes

In From a Still Unquiet Place, McMaster’s familial connection to the landscape is opened up to broader legacies of colonisation in Canada. This image was taken on the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, near the homestead of where her father was born and grew up. The area was once densely forested until the land was sold to a farmer who cut down all the trees. Her father would tell her anecdotes about growing up there, riding horses and tobogganing in the winter.

The title ‘still unquiet’ relates a sense of deception in this seemingly serene landscape. Reservations are still highly politically charged sites, carrying the memory of the residential school system and the aggressively enforced colonial project of assimilation that many Indigenous peoples have been subjected to. Carrying vintage school bells, she reanimates the experiences of many generations who have lived on this land before her. Lockets with pictures she has collected of family members hang around her neck.

McMaster creatively mixes streams of reference from her dual heritage. The headpiece - made from dyed turkey and goose feathers - is a nod to the dog soldier headdress worn in powwow regalia in this part of Southern Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, the green tartan is that of the Campbell clan, referencing the artist’s Scottish roots on her mother’s side.

What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth I - 2019, Digital C-Print, 114.3 x 76.2 cm

What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth I by Meryl McMaster

What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth II - 2019, Digital C-Print, 114.3 x 152.4 cm

What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth II by Meryl McMaster

What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth I & II

What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth I & II

Forests of Manitoulin, coastal ice flows of Lake Erie.
Harmony and recurrence
The seasons offset and repeat.
The cyclical nature of time and life, year after year
The forest, a place of ancient stability.
Water cycles, pulling toward somewhere else yet always returning to its source.
Gut-skin coat – protective, waterproof

Mayfly. Water strider.
Cover me,
Poorly understood, often hidden, important class of lifeforms.
Fragile harmonies
Witnesses to the power of life – the raw and beautiful.

Their silence is a warning of our fall.

Place: Misery Bay/Manitoulin Island and Crystal Beach/Lake Erie

kikway ta wihtamowāwak kīsik ēkwa okāwiymāw askiy I & II

sakāwa osci Manitoulin, kihcikamihkwa maskwamiya osci sākahikan Erie.
pēyahtikwan ēkwa kāwi ispayihowin
kā mēskocipayiki ēkwa kāwi ispayinwa.
kā ispayik tāpitaw tipahikan ēkwa pimātisiwin, askiy kotak askiy
sakāw, ēta kayās pēyakwan tāpitaw.
nipiy ispayinwa, itohtēmakahk māka tāpitaw kāwi ē wāyinwēt.
tāmiyowa-asakay miskotākay, nipiy nakinikan

sākipakwaōcēs. nipiy pimihcēs.
moy nistohtamēcik, āskaw kāsohēcik, mistēhtakosicik pimātisowinisa.
wahkēwina pēyahtikēwina
wāpahtamok pimātisiwin ēsohkahk – ē takahkinākwahk ēkwa ē wāpahtamihk.

kāwātisiwak ta wihtamākonaw kiyānaw ta pahkisinaw.

tāntē: Misery Bay/Manitoulin Island and Crystal Beach/Lake Erie

Curator's Notes

In this diptych, McMaster wears different variations of the same costume, modelled after an Inuit gut skin cloak - a waterproof garment used for fishing that she saw on a trip to the British Museum. The cloak is adorned with mayflies and water striders, two species which play a crucial role in maintaining ecological equilibrium.

As humanity’s collective impact on the natural world is being felt more strongly, many of these insects are silently disappearing. McMaster calls an urgent reconsideration of how we manage our fragile ecosystems. She cautions us to how the natural world is experiencing a profound loss of abundance, which will imminently reach a dangerous condition of no return.

These water borne insects have a quick life cycle which repeats itself year after year in fast succession. Always looking to the past to inform the present, McMaster’s practice is interested in a new model of reconceptualising time that is recurrent and cyclical, rather than existing in a straightforward linear trajectory.

Calling Me Home - 2019, Digital C-Print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm

Calling Me Home by Meryl McMaster

Calling Me Home

A long time has passed.
The young buffalo child fell from his parent’s travois during travel.
Found and raised by the bison people.
One day he had to choose between his human and bison families.
He could not bear to be with only one, so he chose to become mostos awasis asini for eternity.
The sacred stone, mostos awasis asini, rests in the lake.

Place: Mostos awasis asini (Buffalo Child Stone), Lake Diefenbaker, Saskatchewan

ē nitomikowiyān ta kīwīyān

kayās āsay kī pē ispayin.
aspin ana paskwāwi moscosis nāpēsis kā nihcipayit onīkīhkwa otāpācikanīhk kā pimācihocik.
ē miskawiht ēkwa ē ohpikihikot paskwāw mostosak ayisīniwak.
pēyakwā ispayik ta nawasōnāt wītisāna otayisīnīmak ahpo paskwāw mostosak.
pokwātam namôya wītisāna ē kī nawasōnāt, itasiwēw ta ispayit mostos awāsis asinī kākikē.
ana kā māhtāwisit asini, mostos awāsis asinī, atāmipīhk apōw sākahikanihk.

tāntē: mostos awāsis asinī (Buffalo Child Stone), Lake Diefenbaker, Saskatchewan

Curator's Notes

Lake Diefenbaker is a man-made lake that was flooded in around 1966 to create a dam. After speaking to a knowledge-keeper in the community near her father’s reservation, McMaster learnt the story of a sacred stone, the Buffalo Child Stone, which once existed at what is now the bottom of the lake. This was a real stone which acted as a gathering and connection point for many nations over many hundreds of years. When they created the lake, officials tried to move the stone but it was too large. In the end they had to blow it up with dynamite against the wishes of Indigenous communities in the area.

Cartography of the Unseen - 2019, Digital C-Print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm

Cartography of the Unseen by Meryl McMaster

Cartography of the Unseen

Dunes of ancient lakes.
Glacial meltwater,
changing landscapes,
covering over previous lives.
A place once rich with life,
otchak ka sâkowet voice.
Rooted in an ever-present distant time.
Always erasing and rewriting.
A trove of hidden wisdom and experience.

Place: Yehkaw wacihk (The Great Sandhills), Saskatchewan

ēsinākwahk kaya kā wāpahtamihk

ispacināsa osci kayāsi sākahikana.
miskwamīy tihkitēwāpoy,
mēskocipayiki askiya,
kayās osci ki pimātisowiniwa.
ēta mihcēt kīkwaya kā kī wīkicik,
otchak kā sākowēt pihtākosōw.
kayās osci wāhyaw tipahikan.
nayistaw ē kāsihkātēk ēkwa kāwi masinahamihk.
ēta kā kācikātēki iyinīsowin ēkwa kiskēhtamowin.

tāntē: yēhkaw wacīhk (The Great Sandhills), Saskatchewan

Curator's Notes

At first seeming like an unusual landscape to find within the Canadian prairies, this image was taken at The Great Sandhills in Saskatchewan - the second largest active sand dune in the country, forged millions of ages ago by glacial meltwaters. In recent decades, the area has been commandeered by industrial agriculture and oil and gas corporations, with numerous pipelines being built through the area, impacting the habitat of much native wildlife.

Following the route of an ancient pitching trail which would have passed through this area, McMaster traverses the dunes wearing a striking headpiece modelled after the endangered whooping crane. Inspired by decoy ducks used by hunters to attract other animals, McMaster’s beacon-like headpiece offers a warning for local wildlife as she leads them to a place of safety. The ever-shifting sands on the windy prairies offer a potent metaphor for the history of colonial oppression - the systematic erasure, rewriting, and covering over of previous lives and endemic species.

Of Universes We Have Just The One - 2019, Digital C-Print, 114.3 x 76.2 cm

Of Universes We Have Just The One by Meryl McMaster

Of Universes We Have Just One

Bluffs of Tkaronto,
looking over the boundaries of a nation.
Beacon, lighthouse
Orbs as guides or warning.
Covered in stars for survival
for protection or to signal
Strange magnetic feelings
pulled by force,
to isolation or community,
gathering and connecting with each other.

Place: Fool’s Paradise/Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto

ispimihk kīsikohk pēyak poko kitayānaw

ispacināsa osci Tkaronto
pokwēti kā wāpahtamihk iyiniwinihk.
wāskwatawēpicikan, wāskwatawēpicikaniwikamik
wāskwatawēpicikanisa kiskinohtahikēwina ahpo pēyahtakēwina.
akonahikātēwa osci acahkosak osci paspēwin
osci kanawēyimikowisiwin ahpo wihtamākēwin
pītosi pēwāpiski mōsihowina
ocipitamihk kīkway,
ēsi pēyaki pimātisiwin ahpō māmawi wīkowin,
māmawiyatihk ēkwa kiskēmitowin kahkiyaw.

tāntē: Fool’s Paradise/Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto

Curator's Notes

This garment was inspired by a survival blanket that McMaster found in her studio supply bins. On the back, she read over fifty recommendations for its use: to make a signal, to create warmth, to provide shelter. Taken at the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto on a lonely misty morning, McMaster stands like a lighthouse draped in the reflective material as a magnetic celestial spheres cluster around her. The image addresses humanity’s need for gathering and community, exploring how we remedy the feeling of isolation through a connection with others.

There Are No Footprints Where I Go - 2019, Digital C-Print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm

There Are No Footprints Where I Go by Meryl McMaster

There Are No Footprints Where I Go

Memory and migration.
Heading into the unknown.
Forgetting about the path.
A new place.
This process is not sanguine.
It can be a dark moment.
An escape to an unknown and unwanted destination.
Trust the messenger.

Place: Waupoos Bay, Prince Edward County, Ontario

makīkway astēw misit tahkiskācikan ēti kā itohtēyān

kiskisowin ēkwa pimācihowin.
itohtēwin ēsi ētī namôya ēkiskēhtamihk.
ē waniskisihk mēskanās.
ōma kā itōtamihk namōy sanguine.
kā kī tipiskāw ispayihowin.
ta paspēk ēsi moy ēkiskēhtamihk ēkwa moy nitawēhtamihk takohtēwin.
tāpwihtawihk wihtamākēw.

tāntē: Waupoos Bay, Prince Edward County, Ontario

Curator's Notes

McMaster had many conversations with family members on her mother’s side to find the exact location where her ancestors crossed over from the United States into Canada hundreds of years ago. Wearing a blindfold, McMaster heads into a murky unknown, suggesting perhaps that migrations are not always an optimistic venture and may entail an escape from an unwanted place.

McMaster is guided by the figure of Raven - a cultural hero in much First Nations mythology who is believed to have stolen back the sun from a man who attempted to covet it just for himself.

Edge of a Moment - 2017, Giclée Print, 152.4 x 228.6 cm

Edge of a Moment by Meryl McMaster

Bring Me to This Place - 2017, Giclée Print, 152.4 x 101.6 cm

Bring Me to This Place by Meryl McMaster

Edge of a Moment - 2017, micro series

Curator's Notes

The micro series ‘Edge of a Moment’, taken in 2017, was the first time McMaster travelled to specific sites of ancestral importance in what is now known as Canada. The images were taken at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump in Alberta, a heritage site where bison were hunted for 6,000 years. Thanks to their excellent understanding of topography and bison behaviour, hunters would round up the bison and drive them over the edge of a precipice where the fallen carcasses would be processed in the butchering camp below. Whilst this was a sustainable practice that operated for millenia, after settlement on the prairies, bison - and a number of other species - were hunted almost to extinction.

McMaster uses her garment to reference the erasure of key species in this ecosystem and their absence there today as a striking reminder of the broader impacts of colonization on human beings and their environment. The headpiece she wears references the beaver fur used to make fashionable top hats in the 19th-century. From it, a plume of feathers fan out referencing the feather bustles worn by First Nation male dancers in powwow regalia. The prairie chicken holds cultural and economic importance to Plains Cree people, and she has used their tracks in an abstract way to cover the garment she is wearing.