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). The first contemporary Indigenous artist whose work was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Beam was one of Canada’s most ground-breaking Indigenous artists. (See also Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada.)

​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). The first contemporary Indigenous artist whose work was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Beam was one of Canada’s most ground-breaking Indigenous artists. (See also Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada.)


Early Life and Education

Carl Beam’s mother, Barbara Migwans, was the daughter of Dominic Migwans, a chief of the Ojibwe of West Bay (renamed M’Chigeeng First Nation). Beam’s father, Edward Coop, was an American soldier who died as 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 to graduate with a BA from the University of Victoria. Between 1975 and 1976 he did graduate work at the University of Alberta. He left over a dispute concerning his thesis on Indigenous art.

Early Career

By the late 1970s, Carl Beam was already working with his signature photo-collages. He was 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 compare and contrast different ideas and images: old photographs of Indigenous peoples, self-portraits, texts, and drawings. Contain that Force (1978), for instance, has a snapshot of what looks like a 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.”

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 Mimbre Indigenous peoples. Outwardly simple, the bowls contained intricate designs full of turtles, snakes, birds, and spirits playing out mythic scenes. Beam found the Mimbres style bowl inspiring. The pottery he created was always hand-made and contained imagery familiar from his other work – ravens, snakes, figures collected from daily news events. Beam and is family returned to Canada in 1983, moving to Peterborough, Ontario.

Mature Work

Exorcism (1984)

In 1984, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery commissioned a major work by Carl Beam. The result was Exorcism (1984), an elaborate multi-media work that extends over 6 m in length. Coloured in a fierce, angry red, the piece includes three Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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.

The North American Iceberg (1985)

Another closely related work from this period is The North American Iceberg(1985), which in 1986 became the first work of contemporary Indigenous 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 Indigenous people, self-portraits, and texts, one of which reads “ignored, the force moved unsung because 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 Indigenous culture from the destruction caused by colonialism.


The Columbus Project (1989-92)

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 500thanniversary 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 Indigenous 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.

The Whale of Our Being (late 1990s-2000s)

Beam started the 21stcentury 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 Indigenous 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.

Crossroads (until 2005)

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 Indigenous leaders, television personalities, and animals.

Awards and Honours

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 Indigenous artist to be added to the permanent contemporary collection of the National Gallery (1986), opening the door to subsequent acquisitions by other Indigenous artists in Canada.

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.