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First UK solo exhibition of work by Meryl McMaster on view at Ikon
Meryl McMaster, Between the Start of Things and the End of Things III, 2019. Digital C-Print, 40’’ x 60’’, courtesy the artist.

BIRMINGHAM.- Ikon presents the first UK solo exhibition of work by Meryl McMaster (b. 1988, Ottawa), during 4 December 2019 – 23 February 2020. From a rising generation of indigenous artists in Canada, McMaster’s photography explores identity and its distinct cultural landscapes, with extraordinary visual impact. Comprised of new and recent work, the exhibition draws from the artist’s dual heritage to examine broader questions of being, placing emphasis on the social, cultural and environmental contact zones of both her indigenous and European ancestors.

McMaster is of the nêhiyawak community (Plains Cree) and a member of the Siksika First Nation (Alberta, Canada) on her father’s side, and Euro-Canadian (British and Dutch) on her mother’s. Fashioning elaborate, sculptural garments and props, her performative self-portraits – recently staged in a variety of dramatic, outdoor settings – present journeys which are both actual and imaginative, into the realms of her ancestors. Previously focusing on tensions entailed in the overlapping and transforming of bi-cultural identity, McMaster reflects on the struggle found at the intersection of self-exploration and heritage: “While both sides of my family lived on the Canadian prairies, their histories and cultures were often in tension – even conflict. Walking the paths of my indigenous and European ancestors [has been] an act of absorbing time and space, sites of peace and struggle, into a new vision of personal reconciliation.”

In her latest series As Immense as the Sky (2019), which the exhibition takes as its title, the artist draws on place-based narratives, memory and self. Captured across various Canadian provinces, including ancestral sites in Saskatchewan and early settlements in Ontario and Newfoundland, the artist interprets, and re-stages patrimonial stories collected from relatives and community knowledge keepers. Acknowledging the personal and social history and effects of colonisation, McMaster contemplates how ancestral stories are written into the landscape by the people who once lived, as well as those who still reside, in these sites. With an ecological proposition, she presents herself in nature, viewing the environment and seasons as an integral part of the cultural context, where myth and narration go hand in hand. McMaster explains: “I want to bring specific awareness to the broad consequences of colonisation and how the mentality of greed and/or lack of foresight is still impacting us today. Each of us has a complicated relationship with the past with gaps and biases, and it is important to me to expose and explore these gaps so that we may encounter our next moments better prepared.”

Selected works from her series Edge of a Moment (2017) are also presented at Ikon. Taken in HeadSmashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, an important historical site for the Siksika First Nation, the series nods to the wider environmental consequences of colonisation. More specifically, McMaster references the dangers of unsustainable land usage with the erasure of key species within ancestral ecosystems; in this case, bison, beavers and prairie chickens – the latter whose footprints have been abstracted into a garment design. Rather than resolving these dilemmas, McMaster’s work creates opportunities for introspection and conversation. In this vein, the exhibition not only conveys the artist’s developed understanding of herself, but also a refreshingly humane and timely artistic vision.

The exhibition will also tour to Canada House, London, in Spring 2020. It is supported by Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), Canada Council for the arts, Entente de développement culturel intervenue entre le gouvernement du Québec et la Ville de Québec and Manif d'art. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with texts from American writer and curator Lucy Lippard and Indigenous Canadian writer and curator Lindsay Nixon.

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