With haunting photos and elaborate costumes, Meryl McMaster shows us the deep history of the land

She's using art to learn about her own Cree heritage — and through sharing that learning, she hopes she can teach Canadians something, too.

She's using art to learn about her own Cree heritage — and she hopes she can teach Canadians something, too

Daytime photo of a woman (artist Meryl McMaster) dressed in a long dark wooly coat and top hat adorned with red ribbons and black and white bird. Standing on a sunny day on the grassy cliffs of Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, she looks over her shoulder at the viewer, the top half of her face painted white.
Meryl McMaster. "Edge of a Moment," 2017. (Meryl McMaster)

For her new series of photographs, artist Meryl McMaster has been at work to build an elongated costume — one like a column, covered in spheres made from emergency blankets, the kind that look like foil. She's been building a headpiece to go with it, and she's going to shoot the photos somewhere a little further from Ottawa, where she's based — maybe the Scarborough Bluffs.

It's all part of an exhibition she has coming up at Ryerson University during the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in May. Both the costumes and the locations have been part of her learning about her own heritage as a person from a mixed cultural background (McMaster is Plains Cree as well as British and Dutch). And she hopes that in sharing that learning through her photography, she can teach Canadians something too.

Watch the video:

Meryl McMaster's haunting photography

5 years ago
Duration 3:41
Artist Meryl McMaster roams the Ottawa landscape as she tells you how her photographs connect to history, her own Indigenous identity and childlike wonder. Filmmaker: Nicholas Castel

In this video made by filmmaker Nicholas Castel and featuring music by Freddy Kwon, you'll meet McMaster at work in the studio and out in the woods, where she spends a lot of time reflecting and learning. She draws on the knowledge of community elders to gain a better understanding of the history and meaning of sites in Canada where she takes her photographs. And the resulting dreamy images also speak of her love of the outdoors.

"There's always this kind of childlike wonder, I feel like, that I've carried throughout my life," she says. "I think I'm trying to pull on my own heartstrings when I'm taking my images, like I'm trying to bring out those personal emotions that I feel when I'm just on my own or with people — bring out that soul within the plants or the trees."

Meryl McMaster. (CBC Arts)

Ultimately, McMaster hopes that her viewers will both get a little lost in the landscape themselves and begin to understand that the land we walk on has a long Indigenous history. As she explains: "We have to be engaged and you have to learn as a part of that act of reconciliation. I can help Canadians or new immigrants to this country learn about our stories and learn about the history before they were even here."

You can see "From here to there (then and now)" by Meryl McMaster until March at the Portage Bridge Tunnel in Ottawa, in "Confluence" at Glenbow Museum in Calgary, February 2-June 2 or as part of "Manif d'art 9 - The Quebec City Biennial" in Quebec City, from February 14-April 21. And of course, she'll be part of CONTACT at Ryerson Image Centre, May 1-August 4.

Medium shot of a woman, the artist Meryl McMaster, standing in front of a tree in winter. Snow covers the ground and the light is low. Half of her face is painted white and she closes her eyes, facing the viewer. Her arms extend to their full length as she holds a long stack of bound books, her head sandwiched between the stacks she is balancing. Red ribbons trail from their pages like bookmarks. The charcoal book spines are marked with gold pictographs, but the final six volumes remain unmarked.
Meryl McMaster. "Time's Gravity," 2015. (Meryl McMaster)
"Wingeds Calling." (Meryl McMaster)
"Aphoristic Currents." (Meryl McMaster)

Stream CBC Arts: Exhibitionists or catch it on CBC Television Friday nights at 11:30pm (12am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT). Watch more videos here.


Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.