Carl Beam

​Carl Beam (Carl Edward Migwans), artist (born 24 May 1943 in West Bay, Manitoulin Island, ON (now M’Chigeeng First Nation); died 30 July 2005 in M’Chigeeng First Nation).

Carl Beam (Carl Edward Migwans), artist (born 24 May 1943 in West Bay, Manitoulin Island, ON (now M’Chigeeng First Nation); died 30 July 2005 in M’Chigeeng First Nation). Winner of the Governor General’s Award and the first contemporary Aboriginal artist whose work was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Carl Beam was one of Canada’s most ground-breaking Aboriginal artists.

Early Life, Education, and Career

Beam is the son of Barbara Migwans, the daughter of Dominic Migwans, then the chief of the Ojibwas of West Bay (renamed M”Chigeeng First Nation), and Edward Coop, an American soldier who died a prisoner of war in the Second World War. At 10, Beam was sent to the Garnier residential school in Spanish, Ontario, where he remained until he was 18.

Beam enrolled in the Kootenay School of Art in 1971 and went on tograduate with a BA from the University of Victoria. Between 1975and 1976 he did graduate work at the University of Alberta, leaving over a dispute over his thesis on Aboriginal art.

By the late 1970s, Beam was already working with his signature photo-collages variously using screen process, photo-etching, Polaroid instant prints, and a solvent transfer technique used by American artist Robert Raushenberg. Beam’s use of mixed media allowed him to juxtapose different ideas and images: old photographs of Aboriginal peoples, self-portraits, texts, and drawings. Contain that Force (1978), for instance, has a snapshot of what looks like an Aboriginal chief set on a field of loosely brushed red and pink. To one side is a large bird painted in greys and blacks, and below is scrawled “Note Well: contain any force you might possess, you never know when they’ll be needed.”

The Southwest

In 1980, Beam and his family moved to Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, to live and work. Although Beam had received sophisticated training in ceramics while at the Kootenay School of Art, he regarded himself as lacking facility in that medium and gave it up. While in New Mexico, however, he was exposed to the 1,000 and more year old bowls created by the Mimbres. Outwardly simple, the bowls contained intricate designs full of turtles, snakes, birds, and spirits playing out mythic scenes. Beam found the Mimbres style bowl amenable to his sensibility. The pottery he created was always hand-made and contained imagery familiar from his other work – ravens, snakes, figures culled from daily news events. Beam and is family returned to Canada in 1983, moving to Peterborough, Ontario.

Mature Work

In 1984, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery commissioned a major work by Beam. The result was Exorcism (1984), an elaborate multi-media work that extends over 6 m in length. Suffused in a fierce, angry red, the piece includes three Aboriginal men dressed in western clothes, someone dressed in traditional clothes, and a huge raven, the surface scored and written over. At the unveiling of the work to the public, Beam had archers shoot arrows at the painting from across the gallery and axes were embedded in its surface. The evident violence of Exorcism is directed toward exorcising the enduring impact of European colonization on Aboriginal life and culture.

Exorcism was included in a solo exhibition in 1984, Altered Egos: The Multimedia Work of Carl Beam, organized and circulated by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. Another closely related work from this period is The North American Iceberg (1985), which in 1986 became the first work of contemporary Aboriginal art to be purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. Like Exorcism, North American Iceberg, which is executed on a large sheet of plexiglass, is splattered with bleeding red paint over old archival images of Aboriginal people, self-portraits, and texts, one of which reads “ignored, the force moved unsung it is so real, into the real it knows flash to light.” The North American Iceberg is an angry and defiant work, but the “force” the text speaks of points to the inevitability of justice and the ultimate redemption of Aboriginal culture from the depredations of colonialism.

The Columbus Project, The Whale of Our Being, and Crossroads

Between 1989 and 1992, Beam created a body of work titled The Columbus Project, raising a wide variety of issues surrounding the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Gan Dancers (1991) is a photo emulsion of a hooded, shirtless man standing in front of a cross set in a wooden cabinet. Below him are images of birds. The image suggests the degree to which Aboriginal peoples were persecuted by the Christianity Columbus brought with him, and also the pristineness of the natural world prior to the arrival of European culture. The print Columbus Chronicles (1992) juxtaposes an image of Columbus with that of Sitting Bull, an American five dollar bill between them, all of it half erased by splashes of streaming white. The Columbus Project was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Peterborough and The Power Plant in Toronto as well as internationally.

Beam started the 21st century with a body of work he called The Whale of Our Being, examining what he regarded as the spiritual emptiness of modern society and our inability to live in harmony with the natural world. The series included photo emulsion works, sculptural constructions, works on paper, and ceramics. The photo emulsion Summa (2002), for instance, contrasts brightly colored images of Aboriginal people with images from the moon landing and of Albert Einstein, suggesting the degree to which modern technology has distanced us from the natural world. The project Beam was working on at the time of his death was Crossroads, its title taken from a song of the same name by legendary American blues musician Robert Johnson. These works combine a variety of images from that of Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan to Aboriginal leaders, television personalities, and animals.


Beam’s work has been included in many group exhibitions, including Indigena: Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples on Five Hundred Years, organized and circulated by the National Gallery of Canada in 1992. His artwork the North American Iceberg was the first work by an aboriginal artist to be added to the permanent contemporary collection of the National Gallery (1986), opening the door to subsequent acquisitions by other Canadian aboriginal artists. In 2000, Carl Beam was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts and in 2005 he was a recipient of the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.

Carl Beam, a posthumous exhibition of the artist's work, was organized by the National Gallery in 2011. The exhibition later travelled to Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.