NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN, NEW YORK
JUNE 12 – DECEMBER 11, 2015
I was lucky enough to see Meryl McMaster’s photographic series In-Between Worlds at Toronto’s CONTACT Photography Festival in 2013. McMaster, a young breakout artist of Plains Cree, British, and Dutch heritage, and a member of the Siksika Nation, has most often taken questions of historical and tribal identity as her subject, particularly in relation to her own mixed heritage. In-Between Worlds is a colorful series full of surreal and mythical images, works that transform native and colonial histories to create hybrids through which McMaster explores her bicultural identities as Native American and Euro-Canadian. Her imaginings suggest a dynamic anti-essentialism capable of reconciling the multiplicities that make up her own background.
But for McMaster’s New York debut, curator Kathleen Ash-Milby and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) are exhibiting her prior series, Second Self (2010), a subtle and less-fantastical group of photographic portraits. The nine works feature single subjects, faces and bodies covered in white pigment, who sit behind mask-like wire sculptures hanging before them. McMaster invited these sitters, her own friends, to make blind contour drawings of their faces, which she then sculpted out of wire. These sculpted drawings became masks or personas that McMaster suggests subtly conceal and alter the perceived identities of the subjects. Beneath the coils of wire, however, Second Self reveals that the complexity of identity, indigenous or otherwise, cannot be reduced to any singular flattened view. Unlike the inward-looking In-Between series, Second Self raises questions of identity that resist the ever-polarizing and deeply entrenched binaries of America’s racial politics.
Take Anthony, a heavyset man whose facial and body hair is dark even beneath the white pigment that covers him. His figure is silent as it sharply emerges from a black background, his nearly life-size bust filling most of the uniform three-by-three foot digital print. This white paint evokes a variety of associations, from Japanese Butohdance to the traditional white clay body painting of many cultures from the Karo of East Africa to Aboriginal Australians. McMaster’s use of this uniform pigment is apparently an attempt to strip away preconceptions based on skin color to reveal more of the “real” person, yet I found myself consciously identifying the sitters: Anthony is clearly black, Jin is an Asian woman, Fred is a redheaded Caucasian boy, etc. But McMaster’s effort is clearly superficial, for rather than hide or overcome racial identity her whitewashing highlights the search for it. Like the masks hanging before each sitter, the body paint is transparent and hides nothing; the real person is to be found in the depth behind the wire and beneath the paint.
McMaster’s self-portraits are the most engaging works by far, which is not to suggest the artist suffers from any disconnect with her sitters (some, like Fred or Jin, are animated and engaged, while others aren’t so much). Rather it is what McMaster does with her own masks of wire that elevates her self-portraits above the rest in the series. Her masks are complex and dense loops of wire, to the point that one wonders if she possibly could have made them from the same blind-drawing process as the rest. While the other subjects made relatively straightforward attempts at recreating frontal views of their faces, McMaster’s masks break the boundaries of any kind of facial recognition. The masks of her other subjects hang in front of their faces as relatively two-dimensional linear constructions, yet the masks in McMaster’s self-portraits wrap around her head and shoulders like helmets or busts. McMaster actually wears her masks.
Art has a long history of misappropriating masks in the service of primitivizing tropes, yet McMaster’s masks feel activated even as she avoids relying on the traditional forms of her heritage. In Meryl 2, the standout of the show, she grasps the wire encircling her head with one hand and looks away. The filament appears light, almost windblown, anchored only by the dense looping spirals on the top of McMaster’s head and just under her jaw. Is her hand trying to remove the tangle of this mask, or keep it from ebbing away on a breeze? There is no kind of face or silhouette to be made out in this wire. It is loose, flowing, dynamic, and utterly fitting for McMaster’s own conception of identity, which she finds to be subjective and perpetually dynamic.
In her other self-portrait, Meryl 1, the artist stares directly out, the wire of the mask stretching out to the sides of her head. Its spirals pressure the boundaries of the portrait. While it is standard practice for indigenous artists to self-identify their tribal affiliation, nation, or heritage, McMaster is unusual in highlighting her heterogeneous, rather than strictly indigenous, heritage, particularly at the NMAI. It is only natural, then, that the forms of her own masks reflect and visualize the complexity of her own ancestry. Their wires stretch out past the superficially worn identity of her face, and in those coils, loops, and curves McMaster is able to suggest the complexities of racial identities that turn back on themselves over and over.
Perhaps, then, the series Second Self is not so aptly titled. The turns of wire in McMaster’s photographs do not capture just a “second” self. Rather, their drawn lines capture the depths and multiplicities of interwoven lineages that McMaster points out in herself and others.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.