In Meryl McMaster’s haunting self-portrait There Are No Footprints Where I Go – part of the exhibition As Immense as the Sky, on view at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham until Feb. 23, 2020 – the artist retraces a journey taken by her mother’s Dutch ancestors during the 18th century, when they crossed into Canada via Picton, Ont., at the time of the American Revolution.
In McMaster’s restaging, however, the boat is guided by a distinctly Indigenous cultural figure: Raven, the trickster hero who put the sun back into the sky after it was stolen by a man. The sun is perhaps what he is carrying in the lantern he holds in his beak, as he and his blindfolded companion row toward the horizon.
By assuming this guise – aided by theatrical props and costumes, which the artist creates herself – McMaster merges her matrilineal European and patrilineal Plains Cree heritage, and charts a course through a place that belongs both to her direct ancestors and a time that predates human existence.
In McMaster’s work, which earned her a Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award in 2018, birds often function as “a reminder to see the world from different perspectives,” the artist says. In other photographs from the series, canaries and goldfinches “reference unwanted creatures who were exploited in the interest of exploration and industrial progress.” Birds use stars to navigate, and having Raven guide a boat beneath an overcast sky is a warning to remember that, “as the stars become hidden by light pollution, we start to lose our way.”
In an effort to better know herself, McMaster has embarked on a journey that uses “stories from family and knowledge keepers” as signposts, helping her bring awareness to the fact that both the environment and the body are sites clouded by the consequences of colonialism. The experience “has reinforced for me how small I am in the universe,” the artist says, “and how we are time capsules learning and gathering information to pass down to the next generation, just like the last generation did before that.”
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