Interviews By Larry Abbott

Gerald McMaster
Plains Cree


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In his paintings and drawings Gerald McMaster meditates on the serious, humorous, and ironic conditions of art, identity, and history in the late twentieth century. McMaster's work lays out in beguiling ways issues of contemporary art, and the intersections of history and identity, both personal and cultural. He can playfully investigate the imagery and cross-cultural meaning of baseball in the Eclectic Baseball exhibition, in which the "traditional Plains Indian symbols of warfare and sacred ceremony were freely mixed with symbols and acual equipment of contemporary baseball." 1 In "Protection," a work from that show, a painted and decorated catcher's chest protector hangs on an abstract yet human-shaped figure. In the work, McMaster plays on the word "protection" as it is used in two quite different cultural contexts, yet he attempts to open up those contexts through his juxtaposition of materials.

These juxtapositions continue in his 1991 exhibition The cowboy/Indian Show. Drawing on his childhood memories, McMaster writes:

As a youngster growing up on Red Pheasant . . . many of my Saturday afternoons were preoccupied listening to such radio programmes as 'The Lone Ranger' and 'Hop-a-long Cassidy', as well as devouring many western comic books. I'd fantasize about being a cowboy. Having a horse and dressing up as a cowboy was all I needed. 2

The work in The cowboy/Indian Show contains both comic and serious investigations into American and Canadian cultural history as represented by the extremes of "cowboy" and "Indian" and the associations that attend those extremes. In each piece McMaster embeds text to add a comment or twist to the image. For example, McMaster calls "Counting Coup" (1990) "a little slapstick," with its image of an Indian pointing a trick gun shooting a cloth "Bang!" at a startled cavalryman. However, "Trick or Treaty" (1990) depicts a grotesquely-colored former Prime Minister John A. MacDonald with the words "'Have I got an act for you'" followed by "your jokin'." This piece, according to McMaster, "was inspired by a poster of Jack Nicholson as The Joker . . . so it became very Halloweenish . . . " 3 As Allan J. Ryan notes, "Cultural and conceptual incongruity . . . is one of the major themes of the show." 4

Through using irony, satire, and deliberate reversals and incongruities McMaster questions the concept of an "either/or" identity system, exclusively white or exclusively Indian; meaning and identity is derived from many sources. His recent exhibition of four works, niya nehiyaw: Crossfires of Identity (1993-94), raises questions about the ways personal identity is constructed and how the homogeneous "Indian" has come to stand for highly individualized Native peoples. In the Crossfires show McMaster continues the line of inquiry articulated in the painting "Cowboy Anthropology" (1990) from The cowboy/Indian Show: "I guess the idea of being critical is what is evident here. Whether I'm echoing what other Indians or other ethnics have to say, 'Indians' can be anybody in general being studied by a science." 5 The anthropologizing of a people, any people, converts them into undifferentiated equivalence. To personalize this, McMaster writes:

Hello my name is Gerald Raymond (Christian names) McMaster (surname). My Indian name is Gerald McMaster. . . . For convenience of the Indian Affairs Identification Program, I am Blackfoot, though I was raised on my mother's Reserve (the Red Pheasant First Nation); she and my biological father were also Plains Cree. My biological status, therefore, is 'full blood' Cree, but that could be questionable; however, my body does remain full of blood. I've been an urban Indian since the age of nine. I've attended art school in the United States, trained in the Western tradition; yet I am referred to as an 'Indian' artist. I have danced and sung in the traditional powwow style of Northern Plains, yet my musical tastes are global. . . . From all this introduction you may think, 'Kemosabe thinks of me as a mutant "Ninja-Injun"'! 6

For McMaster, identity is not fixed but fluid, "since the making of an identity is a creative act of interpreting, sifting and generating ideas and experiences for both the artist and all members of the community - red, black, yellow and white." 7

McMaster, of course, recognizes too the political and historical realities which have affected, and still affect, Indian people. His own work has dealt with political issues, as has his curatorial efforts for the INDIGENA exhibition, which originated at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The exhibition sought to create a "Native perspective" on some seven specific points, but overall the exhibition "addresses issues that range from the early extinction of the Taino people by Columbus and his followers to current questions of self-government in Canada today, including the Oka crisis, and from the fragile sense of identity to the strengthening hope of cultural tenacity." 8 The exhibition offered the opportunity for Native artists to be "interrogators" and "initiators."

After curating the INDIGENA exhibition with Lee-Ann Martin, McMaster went on leave from his position at the Canadian Museum of Civilization to pursue a Master's in Anthropology/Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa. He received the degree in 1994.

Gerald McMaster was born in 1953 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree nation. From 1973-75 he studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; he received his B.F.A. from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1977. Before joining the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1981, he served as the Indian Art Program Coordinator at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College at the University of Regina. In addition to the INDIGENA show, McMaster has curated In the Shadow of the Sun and Public/Private Gatherings (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1988-90 and 1991, respectively)

McMaster's work is in such collections as the Canada Council Art Bank, Ottawa, the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, the Museum fur Volkerkunde, Vienna, and the Peking Opera Company, Beijing.

We spoke one August morning in his studio in Ottawa in 1992.

LA: You once wrote about Native arts that "seeing is mandatory, conclusions are optional." Could you expand on what you meant by that?

"Protection," 1989, plywood, catcher's vest,
wire, lacquer, acrylic, metal bells, ribbon
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**All images courtesy of the artists**
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GM: I was interested in the processes of the politics of minorities and the politics of majorities, particularly in the education of Native people, the assimilation of Native people, and then the total homogenization of everyone into one mass individual. What we see and what we have come to believe have been constructed by institutions. For example, the educational system takes its policies of control, assimilation, and homogenization from the government. We have to begin seeing beyond what is given us to see. If we are all told to see the same way, then we will all follow like sheep. I think that we have to come up with our own conclusions in the end, but first must see, really try to analyze situations and take time to come up with conclusions, not come up with conclusions that we are told to come up with. We come from different cultures and different families and different geographies and our realities are constructed by these variables, and I think they are important to maintain, because even Native people's realities can be constructed along lines similar to white people. I mean I'm using the generic white man -- just a white European perspective. I was concerned about that. I saw in my own past how everybody was being asked, or being forced, to assimilate within that perspective and I saw the media's part in that manipulation.

LA: Do you attempt to counter that manipulation in your work?

GM: Certainly what you are trying to do as an artist is to give alternative perspectives. What I'm saying is that you have to absorb the artist's information and you walk away with your own conclusion. Mind you, most people just walk away without concluding anything, or even wanting to see, because the art is so totally off the wall that they are completely turned off.

So what I've done, and what a lot of contemporary artists have done, is explore the possibilities of integrating text within the visuals because the text, whatever it is, will usually relate to somebody right away. An image will relate to somebody, but most times when we read an image, we're told to appreciate its aesthetic qualities and usually what that means is to appreciate it for its beauty. What text does is allow us that one further step. If you are turned on or off by the image, the text you can relate to and perhaps that text will -- the written texts I'm talking about -- hold you for a moment, and sometimes if you are particularly interested in a work you'll want to be held longer and ask, "what is it saying to me?" So what I have done is to try to combine written text in my images with the sense that it will draw you in, to carry you one step further than just that looking at the image. The text has entered your brain along with the image and you might stand there further and try to draw your own conclusions, or you leave and it will gnaw on you later. So it's a strategy that I've begun to employ in the last couple of years to combine certain text with my images.

LA: Could you talk about the interplay of word and image in your painting? Are they integrally-related, in that you conceive of the image and written text as a whole piece, rather than the text being added on later? If the image stood alone would it be less powerful?

GM: Well, it used to be that people made up really horrendously-sounding titles for their work, and the viewer would go to the label and back to the work and then back to the label. And I thought, just do it on the damn canvas, paint it on, stick it there so that it stands out. I started a few years ago, maybe about five or six years ago. It wasn't an obvious thing and I deliberately made the writing ambiguous, but if you thought about it then it all made sense. What I've done in the last few years is more specific and I began to incorporate text, silly or not, that provides another level or angle for looking at something. It bothered me that people's ideas about Native art were so stereotyped. People try to narrow its definition so much that for me I think that Native art is like any art; it's open for all sorts of definitions, whether it's traditional, contemporary or whatever. I think that each and every approach to creating has its own definition and every artist has his or her own peculiar definition.

"niya nehiyaw," 1993, acrylic and graphite
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Because a lot of Native art over the past 20 to 30 years was merely thrust aside in a derogatory manner, a lot of Native artists began to say well, I am no longer a Native artist, I am an artist who happens to be Native. Then some artists said that I am not a Native artist, I'm just an artist. They kept qualifying and requalifying it and it bothered me because in some ways a lot of artists, Native artists, were in fact very concerned about their work and what they were saying, but it was completely missed or totally ignored by the viewer.

So in essence what the viewer was buying was very safe art work because the artists were just concerned about selling. This noble image of the Indian became safe and it was selling but there was really no burning issues that they were talking about. I was interested in issues that I want Native and non-Native people to understand, so to run away from the term "Native artist" was sort of running away from your own viewpoint. My concern was that no, I'm not running away, I am a Native artist, and more specifically I come from a specific tribe. That's my perspective and it colors me that way. Western art has its own antecedents and its own history and it's the same with Native art. I was very concerned that we were being absorbed and the mainstream was saying, well, you're just artists; the whole notion of homogeneity began to be directed at minority artists. So no, I am not just an artist of Western art. I see my history as very strong and real and so my art work is a continuity of that, even though I absorb contemporary styles and attitudes and that kind of stuff. I am a Native artist and I have some very real concerns in my work, and whether or not the audience likes it or not is purely up to them. My interest certainly is not necessarily in selling, it's in selling the idea. Will people begin to see what I am saying? So I add subtlety. I try to add text so that people can get into it, so that the viewer can understand and perhaps take that one step closer and question what it is that the artist is actually saying. So I'm not simply selling an image. I'm selling an idea so if one viewer can get that idea perhaps others will begin to see it. That's why I began to incorporate the notion of written text into my work; it will help the viewer gain that further step.

LA: As you say, if you are mainstreamed then you sort of lose any uniqueness or individuality.

"Custer's Hat Size," 1990, acrylic and oil pastel

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GM: The government has been trying to mainstream us for 500 years by trying to deny our originality and our uniqueness. I'm not faulting other artists who want to join the mainstream. That's my own perspective and that's the way I see it. I'm just concerned that once we've fallen into that particular mode of thinking then we begin to deny our own history. That to me is a very real issue, not only for Native artists but for other quote unquote minority artists as well. I think Native artists have different audiences and they are in a very lucky and interesting situation because of that; they have a Native audience and a non-Native audience. How many white people have those kinds of opportunities? They only have one audience. I've come to recognize that a Native artist has an opportunity to create for different audiences. You know, in the Southwest and the Northwest Coast it's very real; they can create something for the tribe and for the elders, for ceremony, for whatever. That context is very real, and I think that in other tribal territories the role of the tribal artist is becoming very interesting.
Edgar Heap of Birds has talked about that within his own tribal context and to me that's very important, although personally I've never been approached by my tribe to create works for specific reasons, but I'm very willing to do that. I would enjoy creating something for my tribe or the elders or something for a specific reason. You can create something for the outside world, for the Western world, and somebody will scoop it up and buy it, and then you just make something else. But for Native artists there is the very interesting possibility that your creativity has other functions and other reasons for existence, not just to create things for a market. So we have the possibility of creating for two different audiences. By creating for a Native audience your work will have a life and a very specific meaning. The elders say that art has life, and I would like to see my work have life in a traditional context. When you create something for the market it sort of dies as soon as you finish it because you are severed from it. It takes on a different life if it hangs on somebody's wall or sits in a museum. It's severed. But for a Native community, no. It continues to have a very interesting relationship with you

LA: Do you see your work as an extension of traditional art? You said that you use European techniques or materials but also that you feel a connection to traditional art.

GM: I see it only in historical terms, but if you are allowed that opportunity to create something for the tribe of for individuals within the tribe then there is an extension of history and continuity. But a contemporary artist is really extending history in a very interesting way because contemporary art talks about contemporary Native society, its positive and negative situations and is like Western art in that sense. You travel through time and there are periods of very specific ideas and possibilities and Native art is the same way. You look back on it historically; it didn't start out as art but it sort of ended up as art. So there is an interesting transference of meaning and how that has glided through history and what it means through specific time periods. I think what is being created today by Native artists will also evoke some sense of place and time. But I think that Native people have to situate themselves and realize who they are because we've been situated by other people historically. We have to come up with our own sense of history and definition and see the implications of that definition. To me that's very real because if people can define themselves as artists, they can certainly damn well define themselves as Native artists and define their own terms and historical situation.

"Cowboy Anthropology," 1990, acrylic and oil pastel

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LA: Let's talk about a piece you did some time ago, with the Lone Ranger and Tonto. It's a favorite of mine. You put the Lone Ranger's mask on Tonto and then have sort of a white mask on the Lone Ranger.

GM: It's called Untitled. The Lone Ranger's mask is really a farmer's tan. Do you know what a farmer's tan is? It's when you wear something for so long, like a hat or a shirt, the covered spot never gets tanned, it stays white.

LA: The non-Indian viewer looking at the Lone Ranger and Tonto might have a different reaction, perhaps, than the Native person.

GM: There are all sorts of things I was playing with in this painting. There's the whole notion of the male phallocentric gun, and the idea that there is always somebody evil out there and you need to arm yourself. The other rhetoric is that people should have an opportunity to go out and hunt game, but the term "wild game" gives the idea of something beyond them, something wild, the animal, and earlier in time that wild animal was a Native person. So the gun has all sorts of symbolic meanings and different interpretations.

LA: You've colored the gun reddish.

"Counting Coup," 1990, acrylic and oil pastel
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GM: What I've done is said, okay, I'm inferring here a status of the gun, giving it some red, some life, some blood. A feminist can look at this and perhaps have fun with it. Or look at it very derogatorily, for that matter. But I think that there is a sense here of phallocentrism that cannot be denied. But my interest, with my twisted sense of humor, was of Tonto and the Lone Ranger arriving on an Indian reservation. Usually in movies the Lone Ranger's identity is concealed from white people, but in my piece Tonto is really concealing his identity in front of the Indians. He's concealing his own identity and saying to his Kemosabe, give me the mask.

LA: Could you talk about the evolution of your work and your use of various media. You've done a great deal of graphite drawings, and you stayed away from painting for a while.

GM: I did the graphite work because I abandoned painting for six or seven years and I took up drawing. I'd always liked drawing, and painting was getting to be difficult, so I just abandoned the painting altogether and took up drawing. I did large drawings and experimented for a while and then about '87 I began to take up painting once again and was very much interested in it. I guess I was without color for so long that I needed to add some color in my life because the drawings were getting sort of stiff and I was getting sort of stiff and I wanted to loosen up a bit even though in the drawings I was trying to maintain a sense of humor. And then when I took up painting again it got a bit less humorous because I was starting to get into some ideas that were very, very serious and I had to stop and think of why I was getting so serious. I was trying to understand what it was in my painting that was leading me to that seriousness. I think it was sort of a crossroads in my life, particularly my life as a Native person, a Native artist. Going back to this notion of understanding the potential for artists to create within two different contexts, I was trying to meld the two and say that it was okay to do the two simultaneously, but I realized that such was not the case. You had to define your own boundaries between what you create for the Native world and for the non-Native world. They are two different realities and you have to draw the line between the two. To me that line was always there, and to young people and to other artists it was always shifting back and forth. You never knew where you stood; you were either on one side of the other. I found out that I can now straddle that border and understand the two. So once I began to understand it, it took some conversation with older people and more knowledgeable Native people to see that one's talent is very real. You should understand its power and potential and not waste it, not in the sense of wasting it randomly but wasting it in the sense of emotional waste that can hurt you.

And I think in trying to understand what they were saying about using talent wisely, then okay, my talent can be used much more explosively and dramatically, and I can talk about history and I can talk about issues and I can use history in the context of art, but I cannot use my tradition and culture and decontextualize that into art.

So at that time the heavy seriousness, I mean my art is always serious, began to dissipate and I began to have fun and I said okay, I think I can be an artist in the Western sense and understand what art means and use knowledge and my understanding of myself as a Native person, my history, and combine the two to create something, which is what I am doing today. So I am being respectful of my traditions and my culture, I can leave it at the door, I can leave it on the reserve or wherever and it's no going to enter into my art. I can use my talent to redefine myself. I can now say that that's the perspective I come from and those are the issues that I talk about. I'm not a mainstream artist because I'm talking about Native issues, but in a modern, Western context. I think I've been able to understand who it is I am and what it is I do and then hopefully others will see that. I like Lucy Lippard's answer to herself; she says she's a sniper as a writer. I thought, well, I can be that as an artist too, I can be a sniper. I can look at the world and offer a different perspective, and snipe at the "official positions" and look at them from other angles. I think that's my role as a contemporary artist.

LA: What is your approach to a particular work? Do you start with a concept that you want to execute, or do you sort of just go and see what develops?

"Trick or Treaty," 1990, acrylic and oil pastel
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**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
GM: Both of those. There are times that I just want to come down and paint and do my figures quite intuitively because I've been doing this for a couple of years now, I just come down and paint. But generally I like working from an idea. I force myself to work that way because I've been very successful. I've done that for a number of years where I've forced myself into an idea and did research on it. Sometimes I read books. Other times I don't because it's really just a matter of looking carefully at a situation. But there are times when I just come down to the studio and just paint, but it doesn't happen as often.

LA: Could we talk about your art education, and what lead you to the Institute in Santa Fe and on to Minneapolis. What were some of your influences, artistic and otherwise? Did you see yourself as an artist when you were growing up?

GM: In school there were two things that I liked, drawing and sports. There was pressure for social acceptance. So you do what's there and sports were there. I did a lot of sports, and I was very good at them. For a Native person that's important, particularly in a racist world where you are not necessarily socially accepted. I gained respect from sports so that was important. But after high school I realized that the camaraderie of sports was now about abandonment. Later I was asked to create programs in Native art, so I learned about Native art. I did programs on Native art, but the irony is when I did go away I couldn't find it.

LA: How much were you at the Institute or MCAD influenced by EuroAmerican modernism or abstract expressionism?

GM: At school you were encouraged to go to galleries and the instructors were saying, "study the masters"; and so, I used to look at the "masters." But maybe I was too stupid to figure out what it was that they were saying to me. I'd look at them, and at the nudes, and say "all right" or something like that. A lot of the masters dealt in ideas that were of a Christian nature, so how could I translate that? It didn't make sense. There were themes of the average man and a lot of the art work dealt with realism and it was fun; I could relate to that. But I guess the themes themselves were very difficult to understand because you had to know a lot about Christianity. But I never had any good teachers that would really talk about ideas. I never had a teacher who talked about ideas, who could sit around and rap and talk about issues. Instead, in art school, you are there to learn how to paint or to sculpt, you worked on your own raw talents. In Santa Fe there wasn't much except to try to copy what other artists were doing and selling downtown. So there wasn't that much of an influence there. When I got to Minneapolis, I used to go to the art galleries, to the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and see the other artists, and sometimes I got turned off by some of their work. And then at school, you were taught painting, but I was very concerned about issues affecting Native people. I wasn't doing any abstract art. I was doing representational art because I didn't understand the notion of abstract art. I was very concerned about identity. I had an identity crisis as a Native person. So the two combined really threw me for a loop for a long time. I couldn't relate to the "masters" because they weren't part of my culture. I got excited by bead workers and quill workers. Those are my masters.

I did see artists like Chuck Close and Morris Louis and I remember seeing Fritz Scholder in Santa Fe at that time, and Wayne Thibaud. I remember them. I was interested in combining their techniques, so that was somewhat of an influence, as was the Santa Fe style, whatever that was. 1980 was the one year I did abstract art. God, that really threw me for a loop because I had to do it; I was turned off by it. What I was creating wasn't exciting or interesting, because I wasn't used to doing it. I was used to doing works with content and saying something. So the one year I did the abstract works as a young artist was really hard.

That's when I got into drawing and started to draw much more significantly through the 80's. My interest now is in looking at other contemporary artists. It's not so much looking at the "masters" any more. I look at them quite differently now and see them as representing the life and times that they were working in. I'm much more interested in the critical issues of art than as a springboard for ideas. You begin to find your own signature and you go with what you feel comfortable with because it's your strength and that's what you do. I look at a lot of contemporary artists and see what they are doing. Hopefully I am within that context as well.

LA: You've been curator of contemporary Indian art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization for over a decade. In your curatorial role, what have you seen in the development of contemporary Native art?

GM: It's been a learning situation. It's difficult to be an artist and curator. The separation of the two is necessary, but at the same time the curator must know what's in the mind of the artist and must know the techniques they are using and the ideas they are thinking about. I'm also very happy as an artist. I feel very good about it. I feel relaxed when I'm in the studio. Usually when I'm in the office I'm thinking of ideas I want to do in my art, but at the same time I have to think like a curator, because there are so few Native people who are curators. I'm encouraged by other artists to continue in my work. They say we need you there. So that subtle encouragement is what keeps me going as a curator. I also have a lot of ideas as a curator and I would like to test them out. I'm used to the system, I know what the system is like, and I think that where I am today is important for other Native artists because I've helped to gain some ground for them on the national scene and in making valuable contacts. I think that I have also been able to bring issues forth and create potential venues for Native artists and their ideas. Once you create a venue then the larger public, the art world, may become more cognizant of the issues that Native people and artists are articulating. That to me is important as a curator.

LA: Looking at some of your work, there's clearly an ironic and satiric dimension to it. This comes out in The cowboy/Indian Show. How did the satiric dimension develop?

GM: It just didn't happen within the last couple of years. Indeed, I was dealing with this angle for a long time, for ten years at least, if not more. It was a strategy that I wanted to employ because I felt that you can deal with very serious issues that way, much like the way clowns deal with the serious issue of life. It's also one way to bring laughter into a very serious situation, or to depict a very serious situations through laughter. Native people have been employing this strategy within their traditions and I felt that I could do that in my art work as well. I'm concerned about the issues which impact on Native people, and I felt that you can be easily turned off by those issues when artists bang you over the head. I also felt that a lot of artists were perhaps evading and avoiding the issues but were creating art that was interesting and humorous, and I thought that that was an interesting strategy. So I started to employ that and so far it's been quite successful because people look at the art and the comment is that they understand what I am saying and they enjoy the strategy of humor, yet the work is very serious. I'm not the Charlie Hill of Indian art. I'm not. I like to laugh but I'm not a comedian, and I think my work is not meant to be comedic in that sense. It's meant to embody the seriousness of the issues we face through humor and irony and through introspection and reflection. I think ideas and issues can be talked about very seriously through this strategy.

LA: Would you call yourself a political artist?

GM: Well, a lot of art is political. I think all Native artists are political just because of their existence within the Western world. They're fighting to be known in different ways and whatever strategy they employ is great. It furthers themselves and the cause and the culture and that makes people more aware of who they are and what they are. Sure, I think that I'm political and people look at my work as political. I can argue that it's political, but I can also argue that there's a lot of humor in it. But generally I think that its the tone that's quite political.

LA: You also did a show called Eclectic Baseball. You took items from baseball and wedded them to Native contexts.

GM: As I said, I was into sports and I combined that with my interest in art, and the show came up by accident. I had a small painting of a hockey player from my nephew, and I was searching out for an idea to do my for my gallery in town [Ufundi Gallery, Ottawa]. My gallery asked me what I was going to do, what my show was going to be about, and I said I'm going to do one on baseball. So I got myself into trouble because I was saying, oh, shit, now I've got to do something with baseball, what am I going to do? I actually had started thinking about it earlier and created a drawing and one or two pieces well in advance, but two months prior to the exhibition I was scrambling because the museum had opened in 1989, in June, so I had July and August to really buckle down and create works for my opening in September, I think it was. I knew what baseball was all about, but I went to really study games and I began to see the sport quite differently. And as I was creating the show I began to incorporate some ideas of baseball and Native culture for some reason. I don't know how I did it, it just began to happen. I began to see the peculiarity of integrating the two. I started to see things and make connections and it sort of brought out this strategy for humor that I felt that Native people had. I played baseball on reserves it was always lots of fun with lots of humor involved. So I wanted to integrate humor and baseball and Native culture and Native involvement and it began to work. Then all of a sudden it come out and I was creating this and that. I had a really interesting two months in settling down and creating and I think that at that time I also began to work on the idea of humor as a strategy. The humor and irony in Eclectic Baseball sort of translated to the next show, The cowboy/Indian Show. The next one, Savage Graces, sounds very ominous and serious, and it is serious, but as I am starting to work there's a sense again of irony and humor in it that will hopefully transcend the way we look at art and how we define art. That's my strategy for evoking laughter and provoking ideas and discussions because to me I enjoy people looking at my work and having a chuckle about it. Once they've chuckled they can take the next step to understanding.

LA: Let's talk about The cowboy/Indian Show. A number of things struck me about that. The positioning of the subjects in the paintings was unusual. The use of color was also pretty striking. You used text in all of those paintings.

GM: Because of the rush of time, and because ideas are just constantly coming, I have to work fast. Consequently I don't have that much time to stand back and look and enjoy my work and say wow, what a nice color. I just open all my colors and throw them on the canvas and see what happens. They dance with one another. As you look around the studio here, I don't have a palette for mixing colors. I just take them straight out of the tube and mix them on the canvas. Sometimes I never repeat a color. I guess they are brilliant, and they sit there sometimes right out of a tube, metaphorically speaking. I have to do stuff to get them prepared, but they're bright. I like the brilliance and brightness of acrylics, and because they dry so fast you can do all sorts of stuff. You can do layering. You can use the colors that are underneath. There are lot of things that you can do.

LA: It seems to be that reds are predominant.

GM: Well, it's hard to say, but red's not a dominant color in my life. Well, maybe it is, I don't know. Color is important and I said that I returned to color I really returned to color. I deprived myself of color for years and then I thought, God, I'm going to get back to this and have fun.

LA: The titles and the the text in the paintings also had a lot going on.

GM: That same year, 1990, I was doing an exhibition with some other people called Why Do You Call Us Indians? I had a piece with that title, too. It was taken from some book I was reading and apparently some Native person had asked that of somebody, "why do you call us Indians?" So I did a painting based on that and then there was an exhibit. And continuing my interest in Indians and issues, I thought, what's another issue in contemporary life? I just finished baseball and I thought maybe I'd do another exhibition which has some humor in it. What can I do? And I began looking at my own life, my past. What equations were there? What was it in the past that was of interest to Indian people? I began to see that first of all Native people were being assimilated. Where I'm from everybody wears cowboy hats and cowboy boots and I began to see the irony of Indians dressed as cowboys. I thought I'd take that as an idea; Indians and cowboys and cowboys and Indians and see how that works. I took it from there. It became very interesting, and very serious, because then I began to look at my own life and how much I saw Native people involved in the construction of their own realities. I think that's where it came about because I just started painting. I came in the studio in late July and for a whole month just painted on this theme and was very excited by it. I began to realize that there were so many incongruities. I had to decide what I was going to do about this cowboy and Indian equation and address it as an issue. It became quite successful although it didn't resolve anything. The Savage Graces exhibition may resolve some issues, or maybe not, but it's continuing that whole line of examining stereotypes and how Native people are at the brunt end of the stereotype. I think the exhibition will offer some interesting perspectives, and I see it as an interesting possibility of my continuing strategy of humor and irony with a politicizing of the content. That's always real and that's always there.

LA: You've mentioned that you are trying to reconstruct the image of Native people. What do you see as the thrust of the show?

GM: I'm interested in the "Noble Savage" as an idea because, coming from the exhibition "Why Do You Call Us Indians?", that question immediately thrusts out and demands an answer. Native people have never been happy with "well, it's been done that way for 500 years." European people often said that the Native North American closely resembled the child of Eden or primitive child of the wilderness and they saw some nobility in that. This conception worked to the detriment of Native people. I think the Native person was seen in a very different light from other human beings.

Yet it's ironic that conceiving Native people in a child-like innocence went hand in hand with a policy to eradicate every sense of them, through assimilation policies and denial of religious and cultural freedoms. And so that became an interesting contradiction, and to me it extended past historical writings and into the photography Edward Curtis and other photographers. Like in this painting that I'm doing here, there are nine Indians all facing the same way. It's like mug shots of a past that we're not going to see any longer, just their profiles and their innocence and their long hair. This is it. This is all we're going to see. The vanishing race. Another stereotype.

Photographers took on the role of documenting the vanishing race, but at the same time Curtis also began reconstructing Native realities or pretending to reconstruct what the Native person was like. By the time Curtis was moving around the continent nobody was wearing any traditional outfits any more. So he had to find people and then ask them to put on their outfits. So he was deliberately constructing an image. Of course we're all familiar with Hollywood movies of cowboys and Indians, and that was another construction of the image of the savage. So we have the continuous construction of the Noble Savage.

Then Native people themselves in the 60's and 70's came to believe that the construction was indeed our ancestor, this Noble Savage. Museums are constructing that Noble Savage identity through the classic image of the Indian. The Plains Indian was the most visible image that was constructed. So Native people, I think, began to reconstruct their own identities based on this model of the Noble Savage. But the point of departure is that it was Europeans who constructed the Native person, and now it's Native people demanding their own reconstruction. They're going to reconstruct the image they way they want to. Whether or not it's the Noble Savage is still up for question, up for debate, and I think that's the question that I throw out. But the point is that it was very real in the past how Native people preferred to look at themselves; today is another thing. I think there are a lot of incongruities and contradictions out there that we have to fight to clear up and to reconstruct. As an artist, part of the reconstruction process is deconstructing the image. I try to take apart all those images and stereotypes and throw them back to people and say look at it and think about it. The images are not real. They are untruthful. That basically is the thrust of the Savage Graces exhibit.

LA: In a statement for a show in the late '80s you said, "since my return to painting I've been greeted with a certain interest and pursuit of images and ideas." And about earlier Native artists you added: "The individual thus constantly sought a resolution to the world around him in an attempt to find his place within it." Would you say that art does that for you in some way?

GM: It has to. Everybody seeks a resolution in something or another and to me art does that. It's reflected in my individuality, but at the same time it's reflective of Native realities and I try and understand what it is that I see out there and try to resolve as much as I can through my art work and through my writing, which is also an outlet because in writing I'm able to be reflective, whereas in painting it's more spontaneous and intuitive and you just do it; although you think about it, it's on a different level. In writing I can be more reflective and sit and think about things and seek answers. You put an idea down and you think about it. So writing to me is another possibility of resolving a number of ideas and thoughts and painting is another one. So I'm hoping I can combine the two in looking introspectively at myself as well as at Native people. I'm not sure how to articulate it yet. To me it's very different. I mean painting is fun. I really enjoy it. It's a natural. You just do it. Writing to me is harder. I'm working on it, but still it's there. It offers me another opportunity to explore the resolution of ideas.

Selected Exhibitions

Crossfires of Identity, 1993, solo exhibition, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario

Savage Graces: 'afterimages' by Gerald McMaster, 1992, solo exhibition, University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, British Columbia

The cowboy/Indian Show, 1991, solo exhibition, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario

Eclectic Baseball, 1989, solo exhibition, Ufundi Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario

Indian Art '88, 1988, group exhibition, Woodland Indian Museum, Brantford, Ontario

Riel Remembered, 1985, solo exhibition, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Contemporary Native American Photographers, 1984, group exhibition, Southern Plains Indian Museum, Anadarko, OK

Renewal, 1982, group exhibition, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Contemporary Art by Saskatchewan Indians, 1980, group exhibition, Shoestring Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Further Reading

Gerald McMaster, Edward Poitras: Canada XLVI Biennale di Venezia. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995.

_____, "Border Zones: the 'injun-uity' of aesthetic tricks," Cultural Studies 9, 1 (January, 1995): 74-90.

_____, Beaded Radicals and Born-Again Pagans: Situating Native Artists Within the Field of Art. Master's thesis submitted to the Department of Anthropology/Sociology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, 1994.

_____, "INDIGENA: A Native Curator's Perspective," Art Journal 51, 3 (Fall, 1992): 66-73.

_____, "Colonial Alchemy: Reading the Boarding School Experience," in Partial Recall, ed. by Lucy Lippard. New York: The New Press, 1992, pp. 76-87.

_____, and Lee-Ann Martin, "Introduction," in INDIGENA: Contemporary Native Perspectives. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992, pp. 11-23.

_____, "De-Celebration," Artscraft 2, 1 (Spring, 1990): 20-21.

Gerald McMaster, "Problems of Representation: Our Home, BUT the Natives'

_____, "The Contemporary Indian Art Collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec," American Indian Art Magazine 15, 4 (Autumn, 1990): 50-55.

Gerald McMaster, "Problems of Representation: Our Home, BUT the Natives' Land," MUSE 8, 3 (Autumn,1990): 35-38.

"Will the Canoe Ever Look the Same? An Interview with Ron Noganosh," Artscraft 1, 4 (Winter, 1990): 15-17.


1 Allan J. Ryan, "Gerald McMaster: Maintaining the Balance," The cowboy/Indian Show (Kleinburg, Ontario: The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1991), p.12.

2 Gerald McMaster, "Artist's Statement: The cowboy/Indian Show", ibid., p. 20.

3 Gerald McMaster, "Trick or Treaty," ibid., p. 51.

4 Allan J. Ryan, "Gerald McMaster: Maintaining the Balance," p. 15.

5 Gerald McMaster, "Cowboy Anthropology," ibid., p. 33.

6 Gerald McMaster, niya nehiyaw: Crossfires of Identity (Kingston, Ontario: Agnes Etherington Art Centre/Queen's University, 1993), unp.

7 Michael Bell, ibid.

8 Gerald McMaster, "INDIGENA: A Native Curator's Perspective," Art Journal 51, 3 (Fall, 1992): 66.

** Portions of this interview were previously published in Akwe

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