Native artist projects images on herself to skewer stereotypes

''Ancestral 9'' by Meryl McMaster
"Ancestral 9" by Meryl McMaster. McMaster projected a photograph by Edward S. Curtis of "Wishham Girl" onto her face and chest to create a new portrait that joins together her contemporary self with her ancestors.
Courtesy of Bockley Gallery

In popular culture, Native Americans are often depicted as though they are stuck in time, still living in tents or speaking in fractured English.

Many of those stereotypes of Native American ways and culture were created decades ago by white photographers and painters. They made iconic portraits of what were called "noble savages" in the mid-19th century.

A new exhibition by Canadian artist Meryl McMaster at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis cleverly responds to those stereotypes with a new series of portraits.

McMaster, 27, described her heritage as bicultural: part Cree and part Euro-Canadian.

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It was while studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design that she began exploring her Native American ancestry through photography.

"I wanted to have my ancestors speak through me in the present and meld the old and the new in some way," she said.

McMaster was aware of the work of 19th-century artists like Minnesota photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis' portraits of Native Americans made a lasting impression on European settlers, and saw a popular resurgence in the 1970s. But McMaster found them lacking. She decided it was time to for an update.

''Ancestral 14'' by Meryl McMaster.
"Ancestral 14" by Meryl McMaster.
Courtesy of Bockley Gallery

"I scanned these photographs in these books that I had, and I digitally projected them in the studio and shone the light on my body," she explained.

Covering her face and torso in white body paint, McMaster took self-portraits while simultaneously serving as a canvas for images of native women from generations past. She sat very still for extended exposures so that the faces of the women dominated her own.

She similarly projected the images of Native American men onto her father. She called the series "Ancestral." A selection of the images is on display at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis through Dec. 19.

Andrea Carlson, a visual artist in Minneapolis, is also of both Native American and European descent.

She said it's fitting that McMaster is projecting Edward Curtis' photographs onto herself. His portraits of Native Americans always were projections, she said.

"They were often fantasies or made up," she said. "He had an idea of what authentic Native Americans look like or native people look like and that's the portrait he was after."

Carlson said Curtis and other artists like him were paid to capture images of Native Americans before their cultures vanished. He would often edit his photographs, using a primitive form of airbrushing to remove elements from a home — such as a clock — that didn't fit his own concept of what it meant to be native.

Carlson said McMaster's photographs refer to those stereotypes while at the same time subverting them.

"It's really smart because it's portraiture, but then using the colonizer's lens, and taking that colonizer's lens and the image it created and putting it back on her face," she said. "She has agency there — it's still her underneath it and she's taking the picture and that's a powerful place to be."

One hundred fifty years later, McMaster is inserting herself into an image that was supposed to be of a dying race, and showing that it's still very much alive.