Image: Carl Beam (Canadian, 1943 – 2005). Sitting Bull and Whale [from the Columbus Suite] (detail), 1990. Etching on Arches paper. Gift of Douglas A. Hendler.
Whenever I move or visit a new city, the first place I go to is the art gallery. It’s how I orient, and in a way, how I make sense, or begin to grasp a sense of this new territory, and internal terrain. Art becomes the compass, even if I am a bit lost, or unclear, there is a guide, a starting point.
I’ve recently relocated home to Mi’kma’ki, New Brunswick in particular, and am dividing my time between living in Saint John, and Fredericton, the province’s capital, which is settled along the Wolastoq River on the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq, to begin my doctoral studies. It was an honour and gift to see Carl Beam’s One Who Is Brave-Hearted, curated by Emma Hassencahl-Perley of Tobique First Nation, a solo exhibition (June 1 – September 15) at the Beaverbrook Gallery upon my arrival.
Beam, who was Ojibwe and member of M’Chigeeng First Nation, is a contemporary art legend. His famous 1985 painting, “The North American Iceberg,” which was the first Indigenous artwork to be purchased as contemporary art, was aptly titled in opposition to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s landmark exhibition, “The European Iceberg,” that same year.
His monumental body of work holds staggering heart and resilience, and remains a place to connect, reflect, and find a way forward.
Beam died in 2005 (at the age of 62), and five years later, the National Gallery of Candaa mounted a major retrospective of his work. This exhibition One Who Is Brave-Hearted at the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton speaks to the complexities of his groundbreaking work, which spanned photo-transfer, mixed media, plexiglass, etchings and printmaking, and subverted traditional style.
On the didactic exhibition panel at the Beaverbrook Gallery, Beam is quoted: “My works are like little puzzles, interested little games. I play a game with humanity and with creativity. I ask viewers to play the participatory game of dreaming ourselves as each other. In this we find out that we’re all basically human.”
Beam’s beautiful puzzles are both poetic, and poster-like. Influenced by the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, it is through humanity, and playfulness, Beam explored the complexities of the personal and both Indigenous and Euro-centric vantage points, and invites viewers to consider how visual culture plays a role in re-storying, or re-visioning colonial narratives.
His most iconic piece, “The Columbus Suite,” 1990, is comprised of 12 etchings, which features history’s rabble rousers; including: Lakota leader Sitting Bull, Louis Riel, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ, Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ, and John Kennedy, is perhaps one of the most significant works of Indigenous Art. The most recognizable image is “Sitting Bull and Whale,” a powerful and provocative image of the Lakota leader and a whaling, from the Columbus Suite, which was made in his studio (etchings on Arches paper).
Beam’s work is an intervention, and asks viewers to engage in the global context and examine our own prejudices, relationships and/or role in colonialism, to consider social equity, poverty, environmental issues, and how all these all play larger roles in our relationships to one another and ourselves. Beam wants us to look at our positions, both in history and in the present, and consider the connections and interrelations between us, not what divides.
While many of his pieces infuse popular culture; including a Rolling Stone Magazine cover with Julia Stiles on the cover, it’s his trademark stamps “Neon Raven,” and “The Whale of Our Being,” that leave a signature charm. Beam’s work holds a sense of humour, and is both intellectual and accessible. In moments tongue-and-cheek, and in others deeply political, painful and powerful, Beam’s connection between humanity and art is intrinsic.
We are all whales. We are all connected.
After spending some time with some of Beam’s work, and considering what it means to be brave and why it is important to lead with your heart, I cannot imagine a better way, or intention to hold, as I begin this new journey on the Wolastoq River.
Carl Beam: One Who Is Brave-Hearted
Fredericton, New Brunswick
June 1 – September 15, 2019
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To order prints, check out the Neon Raven Art Gallery: https://www.neonravenartgallery.com/