Dramatic self-portraits by Cree artist seek to reclaim colonial images of Indigenous peoples

On display at the Glenbow is a striking collection of contemporary photography by an up-and-coming Canadian artist, exploring questions of identity, hybridity, land and what it means to be in-between places.

Meryl McMaster, 31, has become 'a really, really important Canadian artist really quickly'

Secret of Darkness demonstrates how McMaster is able to transform her appearance in her self-portraits, whether by layering edited images onto her body or through elaborate costumes and props she creates. (Meryl McMaster)

It's a striking collection of contemporary photography by an up-and-coming Canadian artist that explores questions of identity, hybridity and land through its use of Indigenous and colonial imagery.

Canadian artist Meryl McMaster's exhibition Confluence has arrived in Calgary, the last stop on its cross-country tour.

The exhibition is comprised of arresting self-portraits with dramatic costuming and makeup, grouped into three bodies of work that were created between 2008 and 2015.

"A big part of Meryl's practice, especially in the first body of work here, is reclaiming colonial images of Indigenous people," said Sarah Todd, curator at the Glenbow Museum.

McMaster, an Ontario-based artist, is of mixed Plains Cree, British and Dutch heritage. Though her work is described as a personal exploration of her own ancestry, McMaster's photographs speak to broad, universal themes that are accessible to all, Todd said.

"These bodies of works are really working through different ideas of being in-between worlds, sort of reconciling her European settler colonial past and also her Indigenous heritage as well, and learning a lot about her art practice," Todd said.

Her artwork will be on display at the Glenbow Museum until June 2. Keep scrolling for a glimpse of what's on offer.

Many of McMaster's photographs are set in winter landscapes. 'She really likes that sort of urgency of the snowy environment. It makes for a really dramatic photo,' says Todd.

Sentience, 2010. (Meryl McMaster)

'The images are so visually stunning. She builds all different kinds of props, all different kinds of incredibly fantastical photographic scenes that they do become really relatable,' Todd says.

Phantom Silence, 2015. (Lyssia Baldini/CBC)

'She's using colonial photography and projecting it onto her own face. That's kind of a metaphor for her entire project here,' says Todd.

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.
Time's Gravity, 2015. (Meryl McMaster)

McMaster's love of travel and the outdoors informs much of her photography, says Todd.

Dream Catcher, 2015. (Resilience Project)

The 31-year-old artist graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design University in 2008.

Aphoristic Currents, 2013. (Meryl McMaster)

'She became a really, really important Canadian artist really quickly,' Todd says.

Viage, 2010. (Meryl McMaster)

Meryl McMaster's haunting photography

5 years ago
Duration 3:41
Featured VideoArtist 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

With files from Lyssia Baldini