Ottawa’s visual artist, Meryl McMaster, has been nominated for the Sobey Art Award, a prestigious contemporary art prize. She is the only Ottawa artist to make the list. The Sobey Art Award is awarded to a visual artist age 40 and under who has exhibited in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated.
This nomination speaks to how remarkable McMaster is — and she’s only in her 20s. In addition to the award nomination, the prolific, awe-inspiring photo artist is getting a retrospective at the Carleton University Art Gallery, which has organized a nationally touring “early career retrospective.”
Most artists wait decades for such an honour, but McMaster is precocious. The 24 large-scale photographs in the exhibition are mainly self-portraits that explore her dual Aboriginal-European identities and her inescapable links to nature and the distant past.
Titled Confluences, the exhibition runs from May 2 to Aug. 7. The photographs have been gleaned from various bodies of work since McMaster hit the ground running, fresh out of art school in 2010. In many of the self-portraits, she appears like a shaman from some mysterious, ancient culture. The artist’s body becomes a work of sculpture adorned with exotic clothing and unusual props. Posing for her own photographs becomes an act of performance art. Pity any artist who exhibits alongside McMaster — she’s sure to steal the show.
McMaster is the daughter of Gerald McMaster, a prominent Aboriginal artist and curator; her mother is of European origin. These two inherited identities constantly inform McMaster’s work, as illustrated four years ago when a McMaster self-portrait as an Aboriginal Laura Secord so charmed the Canada Council Art Bank that the photograph became the very face of the federal institution’s 40th-anniversary celebrations.
“It speaks to the idea of Canadian identity and national pride; it keeps the viewer looking for further clues as to what’s going on,” the art bank said in 2012. “It also offers a hint of tongue-in-cheek humour: Meryl McMaster is a Plains Cree artist who professes to be a distant cousin of Laura Secord!”
Examining Meryl McMaster’s photographs, one can’t help feeling she claims kinship to a large cast of eccentric characters. Her mesmerizing self-portraits could be images of some shape-shifting medicine woman straight out of Game of Thrones. Be prepared for a wild, unforgettable ride when viewing her show at CUAG.