A woman stands alone in an empty landscape, poised before a precipice. Her face is daubed with thick white paint, and she is looking back over her shoulder. On her head is a beaver-skin hat, tangled with feathers and blood-red ribbon. In front of her, the Canadian prairie stretches off into the distance.
This photograph, shot at the evocatively named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, is the work of Meryl McMaster, one of a new generation of indigenous North American artists. Edge of a Moment, as the work is called, shows McMaster at the site where, for thousands of years, the indigenous inhabitants of the prairies drove entire herds of buffalo over the cliffs, producing meat and material at a scale unequalled anywhere else on the continent. Here, the remains of tens of millions of animals lie closely packed under the soil, a tangled vein of broken bones stretching 12 metres down.
As Immense As the Sky, McMaster’s first UK solo show, is about to open at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, starting a string of exhibitions aiming to wake the UK up to indigenous and Native American art. Like the landscape she captures, McMaster’s photographs feel loaded with meaning, her meticulously constructed outfits and props suggesting complex stories of exploitation, migration, place and heritage. They’re performance, fable, self-portrait and landscape photography all rolled into one.
“With the titles,” she says, “I try to hint at a direction the viewer could think about. It’s not a secretive process. I’m creating dreamlike, theatrical imagery.” McMaster is of Plains Cree heritage and a member of the Siksika First Nation. The Cree, with 220,000 members, are the largest group of First Nations in Canada, with territories ranging from east of Hudson Bay to the far west of Alberta, where they adopted the buffalo-hunting culture of the Plains in the early 1700s.
Although she was born and raised in Ottawa, McMaster’s roots lie in the western prairie near Saskatoon. Her father, Gerald, is an artist and curator who grew up in the Red Pheasant Nation reserve in Saskatchewan; her mother is of European-Canadian heritage. “I feel like I have two homes, very different landscapes that inform my sense of self. That connection to the outdoors has found its way into my work.”
Captured across Canada, including at early settlements in Ontario and Newfoundland, her work revolves around landscape. “It’s almost an equal subject within my images,” she says. “I’ll be listening to stories in my home community, from knowledge-keepers or family members, and it’ll be about a specific landscape. Then that story will influence a costume. With my Cree heritage, I was brought up to respect the land we stand on and everything that lives among us.”
The Ikon show comes at a time of increasing awareness of how indigenous peoples are represented in museums. In April, the Bristol Museum returned human remains to representatives of the Tongva, who originally lived on the Channel Islands off California. Meanwhile, the American Museum near Bath is adding to its collection of contemporary Native American art – and next year will see Settlement come to fruition, a vast project aiming to mark the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims’ journey from Plymouth to the New World.
From July, 27 North American indigenous artists will occupy Pounds House and the surrounding grounds in Plymouth’s Central Park for four weeks. The project takes its inspiration from the word settlement: the fact that it can mean a habitation, but also a resolution to a dispute or conflict. The work of these artists will provide a timely echo of a protest made by the American Indian Movement on the 350th anniversary of the pilgrims’ journey. Led by the activist, actor and writer Russell Means, AIM members seized a replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving Day 1970.
“We’re literally building a settlement,” says Cannupa Hanska Luger, the artist behind the event, which will blend performance, installation, film, poetry and dance to form a “reverse colonial experience” intended to make the inhabitants of a colonising country think about the effect this has on the colonised.
Raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, Luger is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian and Norwegian descent. He uses ceramics, video, sound, steel and paper to tell stories about modern indigenous life. A show from 2013 involved the creation of ornate clay models of boomboxes themed around cliches of indigenous America, which were then publicly smashed and the fragments put on display.
Luger is best known, however, for his Mirror Shield Project, which provided instructions, via a video tutorial, for creating shields for protestors at Standing Rock during the Dakota Pipeline controversy. The shields were designed to protect the indigenous people who were defending their land – and also to humanise the armoured police there, by reflecting their image back at them, forcing them to see themselves as the protesters did.
“I was hesitant at first, because it was tied to the whole Mayflower myth,” says Luger of Settlement, referring to the belief that the narratives around the pilgrims and the Thanksgiving tradition have sanitised genocide, theft and appropriation. “But as I started to think about it, I also thought, ‘Who tells this story?’ I decided it would be important to actually describe the 21st-century experience in relation to the last 400 years of colonialism – and how that will alleviate any romantic ideas of native people embedded in the UK and Europe.”
Discussing the problem of exhibiting in Europe, Luger says: “It seems like every time I go somewhere or exhibit work, somebody says, ‘You don’t look Native American to me.’ You know what I’m saying? I tell them they’re basing their expectation on these romantic ideas of what native people look like.”
The torchbearer for contemporary Native American art in the UK has been Rainmaker Gallery in Bristol. Its latest show, Pattern, explores the recurring presence of pattern in indigenous cultures. It features the work of Jordan Ann Craig, who is also exhibiting at the October Gallery in London. Craig, an artist of Cheyenne heritage, grew up in northern California. Her print work – a series of striking abstract patterns influenced by traditional Cheyenne design – is typified by Red-Orange Dyed Quills, which references the tradition of quill work.
Reducing these traditional patterns to their barest forms, Craig uses a colour palette influenced by the natural dyes of the plains. The prints may be a nod to a time when quills were gathered by first tossing blankets over porcupines, and then dyed with evocative natural ingredients such as two-eyed berry, wolf moss, buffaloberry, sunflower, chokecherry, pine bark, hickory nut and wild grape. The results are striking, fresh and very modern.
With her sister Madison, Craig also runs Shy Natives, which uses fashion to empower indigenous women. The sisters work with photographers, film-makers, poets, models, artists and musicians to create handmade lingerie and apparel that combat the sexualisation and stereotyping of indigenous peoples. “Being native-run is fundamental to our purpose and identity,” says Craig, who wants “to communicate bigger messages about culture, story, and resilience.”
McMaster, in another image called At the Edge of This Immensity, poses on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron: she has a boat loaded with birds on her shoulder. The work was inspired by the stories of her Dutch forebears, a branch of her family that came to North America via New York before fleeing the American Revolution to Canada. “Standing on these cliffs at Gore Bay,” she says, “thinking about the journey that my family took traveling into this unknown land, thinking about this great migration that many people did, I feel time collapsing – and a connection with my family members whose journeys led me to being here today.”
As Immense As the Sky is at Ikon, Birmingham, from 4 December to 23 February.