CURRENT ISSUE | FALL 2017: THE IDEA OF HISTORY
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States of Beam: Remembering Carl Beam

States of Beam

Before his passing a year ago, Carl Beam was honoured with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for his innovative work and persistent will, both of which contributed to the reclaiming of space for Aboriginal artists within the mainstream of contemporary Canadian art practice. In the course of researching and locating his work for the 2005 exhibition “Flying Still: Carl Beam 1943–2005” (co-curated with Diana Nemiroff) at Carleton University Art Gallery, I was surprised to discover how accessible Beam’s work has been to both the general public and art institutions across Canada. I spoke with many people who collected his work: some had found Beam’s Anasazi-influenced pottery, works on paper, prints and paintings in places such as Victoria Henry’s now defunct Ufundi Gallery in Ottawa, the vendor booth Beam set up at Manitoulin Island powwows or through the Internet on eBay. The works tended to come with a profound personal account of Beam, who left a lasting impression on those who met him. People described him as kind and intense, an embodiment of the intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking traits of his artwork, which he claimed was made for thinking people. Beam situated his work to expose the disparities, blemishes and realities of our world, and he did it in a manner that was triumphant and hopeful, ever conscious of the moral fibre of humanity. His themes were local and global, aimed at both Old and New World sensibilities.

Throughout his 40-year career as an artist (he died at age 62 of complications from diabetes), Beam aimed to expose the age-old Anishinabe oral traditions, belief systems and world views among which he was raised, at M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. The Western perspectives and attitudes Beam encountered at the Garnier Residential School in Spanish, Ontario, made him conscious of the implications—for himself, his community and society—of a colonial history that ignored the “other.”

In his work, Beam unravels the complex mechanism of colonialism, acknowledging it as a process of conquest and discovery but framing it from an affirmative position of “survivance,” an idea based on the postmodern, post-colonial theories of the Chippewa writer and cultural critic Gerald Vizenor. For Beam, survivance took into account resilience, adaptability and tradition. His expression of resistance to imperialism, dominance and oppression takes the shape of a counter-discourse that is inclusive, diverse and vigorously indigenous.

Beam’s accomplishments speak louder than words. Consider Burying the Ruler, a series of works depicting a shirtless Beam holding a ruler that the artist realized on paper, on canvas and in performances. Of white and Ojibwa ancestry, Beam makes the ruler—a Western tool for measurement—into a metaphor for power, control and supremacy. It is a linear system in which there is no place for spirituality, traditional knowledge or oral traditions. The symbolic act of “burying the ruler” enables all who have faced the oppression of linear thinking to imagine a freedom from confined perspectives and the marginal conditions that have been built around them.

Beam’s drive to level out a global playing field that suppresses indigenous culture, language and values catapulted him into a proactive position. He juxtaposed Anishinabe principles with Western ideologies: the Anishinabe world view, which is distinguished by a concept of interconnectedness that recognizes all living things as equal, is consistent in Beam’s work. He acknowledges that the natural world and human behaviour malfunction when faith is questioned in a theoretical, rational fashion. When it comes to nature, hostility, tragedy, spirituality and oppression, scientific formulas do not compute. However, Beam includes science in his art by drawing and overlaying mathematical grids onto his works. They point toward Gregorian time, scientific formulas and numerical systems: the theoretical knowledge that lies behind myriad human achievements, from the ancient Egyptian monuments to walking on the moon. Beam’s admiration for wisdom of all kinds comes through in his imagery, which includes both Albert Einstein and the raven, the trickster figure central to Native North American teachings. He respected all sources of knowledge and sought to obtain a balance from all directions.

Recurring images within Beam’s prolific oeuvre include a bird’s anatomy, a running elk, the turtle, whales, Christian iconography, family photos and portraits of freedom fighters and warriors such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Geronimo and Sitting Bull. Johnny Cash, turn-of-the-century anthropologists, even Jennifer Lopez also appear. The images are devices that gauge society; they act as semiotic or mnemonic codes to identify core human values and concerns with power, spirituality and the environment. Mathematical formulas, natural wonders, celebrities and violent imagery sum up our connectedness to one another, speaking to progress, hostility, survival and fragility. As Beam pondered peaceful resolutions, he remapped familiar images into a global and historical context. Synthesizing time, space and cultural elements, Beam salvaged a worldwide intellectual and emotional vision to learn from, believe in and come to terms with.

Some of Beam’s most powerful work took up a prominent historical milestone—the quincentennial of the 1492 “discovery” of America—and addressed the resulting 500 years of historical convergence between the Old and New Worlds. In his stunning series The Columbus Suite, which consists of 12 large etchings, Beam went face to face with half a millennium of colonialism, reclaiming and examining notions of destiny, discovery and identity to counter a public celebration that followed a storyline of occupation and surrender. The images appeal for justice amid misunderstanding and address issues of authority, prejudice, exploration and peace. The Columbus Boat (1992), a sculptural representation of one of Columbus’s ships, landed at the National Gallery of Canada in November, 2005, as a memorial to Beam.

Beam accumulated many accolades, but he will forever be most strongly identified with the 1986 acquisition of his painting The North American Iceberg (1985) by the National Gallery of Canada. The painting was a critical response to the exhibition “The European Iceberg” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and was the first piece of Native Canadian artwork purchased by the National Gallery as contemporary art. Beam’s work continues to be relevant and has been collected and exhibited widely across Canada, at the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, The Power Plant and the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. Having already made its way into the international venues appropriate to its global address, this fall it will appear at the Kópavogur Art Museum in Iceland.

This is a feature from the Fall 2006 issue of Canadian Art.

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