(Stories of My Grandmothers)
Meryl McMaster traverses
her ancestral terrain
By Kate Mothes
Collectively spanning 130 years on the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Meryl McMaster’s grandmothers witnessed immense transformation throughout the 19th to 20th centuries. After paging through diaries penned by her great-grandmother Bella, the artist became more curious about the women in her family, their daily experiences, and their brushes with history. In her solo exhibition at McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, McMaster wields a camera like a spade, excavating the mental and emotional archaeology of her mixed Plains Cree/Métis, Dutch, and British ancestry.
Atmospheric, large-scale self-portraits dominate Bloodline, a survey of the artist’s work that includes a recent series titled Stories of My Grandmothers / nôhkominak âcimowina, which takes Bella’s diaries as a starting point, especially one dated to 1947. “It contained simple and casually noted moments of her life that stoked a curiosity within me about the more personal details that appeared absent from the pages,” McMaster says, spurred to imagine what Bella and her other grandmothers’ personalities might have been like and what events they may have witnessed. “I constructed a fragile yet incomplete narrative. Unavoidably, this process uncovered the impact of living within colonial structures of power.”
The period between the mid-to-late 1800s into the early 20th century was especially rife with new, fast-changing regulations for Indigenous people in Canada, including the Indian Act in 1876, which formally defined the system of reserves and the rise of residential and day schools. Introduced as an instrument of assimilation, they were operated by churches with the the primary purpose of eradicating Indigenous language and culture, often in an environment of prevalent abuse. By 1920, all Indigenous children between the ages of four and sixteen were required to attend day school. The artist says, “When I think of my grandmothers, I wonder about the knowledge they and the community held that was restricted by government policy. In their new environment, how could generational knowledge and memory be kept, be passed along? How do we know who they truly were, or could have been?”
“I constructed a fragile yet incomplete narrative. Unavoidably, this process uncovered the impact of living within colonial structures of power.”
Bella’s diary entries record daily activities, visitors, notes about family and the kids who attended the reserve’s day school. “A break from daily life meant attending a funeral, a wedding, or the outlawed Sundance. To generate a local economy, the women unearthed Seneca root to sell to the pharmaceutical industry while the young people culled grouse eggs to unwittingly play a role in the agricultural administration’s project of controlling the population,” McMaster says. She imagines her forbears witnessing or hearing about historical events like the North-West Resistance, a series of uprisings by Métis, First Nations Cree, and Assiniboine against the Canadian government, or the public hanging of eight Plains Cree warriors—which the children at the local residential school were forced to witness—at Fort Battleford in 1885.
Central to McMaster’s image-making process is an exploration of handicraft and the stories that material culture can relay over time. Family heirlooms immortalize the memory of those who preceded us, and McMaster’s great-grandmother’s diaries provide a trove of ancestral knowledge, however fragmented. The artist’s handmade embellished masks, garments, headdresses, and objects connect to a way of being in the world in which survival and lived experiences are deeply intertwined with the earth. The nature of time becomes fluid, folding back on itself as McMaster imagines herself in her ancestors’ shoes, “filling in the gaps to shape an imperfect idea,” bringing them profoundly into the present and transporting viewers into their world. She adds, “While we may never know the full truths of our ancestors, we can still hold their memories close to our hearts.”
“While we may never know the full truths of our ancestors, we can still hold their memories close to our hearts.”
Header: On the Edge of This Immensity, 2019, Digital chromogenic print, 101.6 x 152.4 centimeters
All images © Meryl McMaster, courtesy of the artist, Stephen Bulger Gallery, and Pierre-François Ouellette artcontemporain.