SACRAMENTO, Calif. Though Canadian Indian artist Gerald McMaster's works
have been exhibited at several prominent galleries throughout the world, he
has quietly built a career on more than his widely-honored art. Though his
own work has been celebrated, McMaster seems more proud to be recognized
for his contributions to the Indian arts community.
McMaster was one of two winners of the 2005 National Aboriginal Achievement
Award for Arts and Culture. The award recognizes outstanding achievements
by Indians and other Native people in Canada in a wide array of fields.
"It's a tremendous honor for me to be recognized, especially by the
Aboriginal community," said McMaster of his award.
Born in Saskatchewan on the Red Pheasant Reserve and a member of the
Siksika Nation in Alberta, McMaster's accomplishments are quite lengthy.
McMaster first came to prominence in the art world with his provocative
renderings of Canadian historical figures.
One of his best known works, the 1990 "Trick or Treaty," used humor to ease
his iconoclastic rendering of the first Canadian Prime Minister John A.
Macdonald. The humorous title, and grotesque rendering of Macdonald that
portrays the leader as a clown, takes the edge off the more serious
Graffiti-like text scrawled above the portrait reads "Trick or Treaty," and
lower, "Have I got an Act for you." The point is hard to miss and is an
effective counterbalance to serious portraits that hang in the halls of
power in Ottawa.
"Native peoples have grown up in a world that has been very cruel. As an
artist you can employ visual strategy to look at historical figures. The
best thing to do is use something humorous. In the end, though, it still
has to be a good work of art," said McMaster, who declined to interpret his
work beyond the obvious because he believes it is up to individual viewers
to come to their own conclusions.
At the same time, McMaster has given reverent portrayals to other
historical figures with whom he is sympathetic, including Gabriel Dumont,
who led a Metis resistance in Canada in the 1880s. McMaster created an
almost regal portrait of the man in a 1985 drawing that marked the
centennial of Dumont's resistance.
These days, however, it is other Indian artists who are the subject of
McMaster's passions. He admits he has not done a painting in 10 years and
instead has concentrated on other endeavors designed to heighten the
profile of other Indian artists. In a way, this is more of a continuation
of McMaster's life work than his own art.
In 1979, he created the Bachelor of Native Art program at the First Nations
University of Canada, Regina Campus. From there he moved on to Ottawa,
where he became curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a post he
held from 1981 to 2000 and created the first Canadian national art
exhibitions dedicated to Indian artists. When he moved on to work at the
Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), he was
uniquely poised as the only person to have opened national museums in two
In addition to his most recent award, McMaster was selected in 1995 as
Canadian commissioner to the prestigious Venice Biennale, one of the
world's foremost art exhibitions, becoming the first Indian selected for
This weighty distinction is only the tip of the iceberg. A graduate of the
Minneapolis College of Art and Design, McMaster went on to get a master's
degree in Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa and went on to earn
a Ph.D. at the University of Amsterdam's School of Cultural Analysis.
McMaster drew inspiration from his Ph.D. dissertation for one of his latest
projects, due to be shown next year in New York City called "New Tribe: New
York." The exhibition, which he hopes will lead to similarly-themed shows
in other major U.S. cities, takes a look at the art of Indian people in big
cities, in this case New York.
The New York show will be broken down into four components and display
works by Navajo artist Lorenzo Clayton; Alan Michelson, Mohawk; Yaqui
artist Mario Martinez; and the three-woman Spiderwoman Theater. All are New
York residents, and the exhibition will showcase how they reconcile living
in New York and being Indian.
In addition to other shows, McMaster is also curator of a forthcoming
exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix which will look at younger Indian
artists mainly in their 30s.
"It's exciting to see what younger artists are doing and how they are
seeing things in the early 21st century," enthused McMaster.
Special Assistant and Assistant Curator Sandra Starr, who began working
under McMaster's supervision in 2000 as an NMAI intern, feels there is no
one more deserving of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Arts
and Culture. She testified to McMaster's humble bearing in that he barely
said a word about his latest honor, and it was only when a colleague in New
York mentioned it that she decided to publicize McMaster's honor.
"He is one of the most worthy and accomplished people that I have ever met,
and you can always use the words 'humble' and 'self-effacing' to describe