The Depths
of Self-Portraiture

The Depths <br> of Self-Portraiture

“In all three of the world’s major oceans, the sea has been a site of imperial interpellation as well as a traumatic passage into slavery, servitude, and exile.” These are the words of academic Kritish Rajbhandari in Postcolonial Fictions, Oceans and Seas (2022). In recent years, we have also seen contemporary artists take a critical look at the associations and histories floating in the depths. For instance, American artist, activist and filmmaker Tourmaline created Atlantic is a Sea of Bones in 2017. The experimental short film borrows its title from American writer Lucille Clifton’s (1936-2010) famous poem about the countless Africans killed at sea during the transatlantic slave trade. Now, the Art Gallery of Alberta presents how renowned photographers Meryl McMaster and Aïda Muluneh approach these waters. Ebb and Flow highlights the unique ways in which both lens-based artists explore the seas as: a multifaceted element in nature; a tool of colonial violence; a matrilineal connector; and a keeper of geologic time.

Meryl McMaster (b. 1988) examines the relationship between land and sea during the Earth’s formation. The visual artist is of nêhiyaw (Plains Cree), Métis, British and Dutch ancestry and her practice investigates colonisation, history, land, lineage, migration and the more-than-human world. An example of this is her series As Immense as the Sky (2019), in which McMaster sought the wisdom of her Elders, friends and relatives to trace the footsteps of her ancestors across significant sites. She travelled to Green Point, Newfoundland, a geological site formed almost 500 million years ago. During the Ordovician period, this area was the meeting point of contemporary Canada, Ireland and Scotland before they became separate landmasses. For McMaster, it’s a zone that links her forebears and she explores this ancient connection in her triptych Ordovician Tide (2019). In the central scene, we see the artist posed against a rocky cliff with her face turning back towards the viewer, showing us the message-bearing bottles strapped to her back. The two shots on either side continue the narrative but there’s a sense of ambiguity: is she collecting these bottles or letting them go? In an interview with Elizabeth Fullerton from Studio International, she states: “For me, the messages in them represent our story that I feel this urgent need to preserve and the hope that in releasing the stories someone will be listening on other side of the world and receive them.”

Next, we turn our attention to Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh (b. 1974), whose WaterAid commission Water Life instantly resonates with the theme of this exhibition. In 2018, she created a series of 12 pieces advocating for clean water access in Africa. Her signature symbolism and bold colours were also ways to counter the cliched depictions of suffering typically shown. The artist says: “each piece is a reflection in addressing the impacts of water access as it relates to women’s liberation, health, sanitation and education.” It’s part of a practice that immediately captivates the viewer through a mesmerizing blend of reality and surealism. For instance, The Shackles of Limitation (2018) shows the subject standing above murky waters, holding a bright blue umbrella and trailing a chain of empty yellow containers behind. Throughout her practice, Muluneh uses this distinctive visual language to speak on a range of important topics. For instance, the Denkinesh – on display at Art Gallery of Albera – triptych shows the protagonist on a journey of growth: first enveloped by red fabric on the pebbled ground; crouched away from the viewer on hands and knees; and, finally, standing tall and triumphant with her ruby gown billowing behind her.

Ebb and Flow is a beautiful and thought-provoking exploration of water, one of the most essential elements for all life on planet Earth. Both photographers explore the topic from their unique perspectives. Using the common genre of self-portraiture, they are able to explore the many facets of their own identities and the important conversations that they wish to initiate. Viewers get to uncover layers of recent memories, historical events and family lore by engaging deeply with each piece. Ebb and Flow is an exhibition that follows how the movement of water has shaped the families, lands and histories of human beings.

Art Gallery of Alberta, Aïda Muluneh and Meryl McMaster: Ebb and Flow | Until 7 July

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Aïda Muluneh, Denkinesh Part Three, 2016. Archival digital print. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, gift of Viviane Mehr and Jay Mehr.
  2. Meryl McMaster, On The Edge Of This Immensity, 2019. Digital c-print. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain.
  3. Aïda Muluneh, The Morning Bride, 2016. Archival digital print. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, gift of Viviane Mehr and Jay Mehr.
  4. Meryl McMaster, Ordovician Tide III, 2019. Digital c-print. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain.