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Carl Beam

The Columbus Suite

Until September 25, 2005

Carl Beam

Carl Beam
1943-2005
Born West Bay (M'Chigeeng), Manitoulin Island
Sitting Bull and Whale 1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

Carl Beam, 1943–2005

On July 30 Ojibwe artist Carl Beam died at his home and birthplace of M’Chigeeng on Manitoulin Island. Among the rapidly growing number of important First Nations artists in Canada, Beam was a strong, independent character and by that virtue he became a leader. His 1985 painting, The North American Iceberg (titled in ironic opposition to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s landmark exhibition of the same year, The European Iceberg) was the first work by an artist of native ancestry purchased by the National Gallery of Canada as contemporary art. He mainly eschewed traditional style and imagery and helped himself to the world through its overflowing inventory of photo-documents, inserting the personal and the symbolic alongside the iconic in remarkably lucid and powerful combinations that partially disguised the artist’s own motives and intentions to force the viewer’s active involvement in their interpretation.

The Columbus Suite, 1990, distills a larger body of work created in advance of the quincentenary of the most celebrated and reviled of European landfalls in the Americas. Its twelve monumental etchings were produced in Beam’s own studio and display bravura technique. It begins with New World, which depicts a turtle (the totem for the North American continent), the stenciled title and the veil of drips punching home the polemical urgency of what follows. Though the appropriated photo-reproductions are formally arranged throughout, this always occurs with the dignity of the images intact. They are invariably upright; never gratuitously degraded, distorted or defaced. The personages, among history’s most epically martyred, persecuted and exiled – Jesus Christ, Louis Riel, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King and John Kennedy – attain revivification through repetition and recurrence, cast together in a colossal, episodic tragedy: the unresolved cultural struggles pertaining to race. Beam achieves this with a mix of solemnity – the double-image of a hooded Apache Gaan dancer above a Pietá scene in The Unexplained or the indelible image of Lincoln and Ravens – and humour – the spindly, naked ethnologist atop a sawhorse in The Proper Way to Ride a Horse or Self-Portrait as John Wayne, Probably. The latter features four pictures of the artist at various stages of his life, beginning with a proud, pistol-packing, would-be cowboy who embodies Beam’s basic lifelong dilemma, the recuperation of native knowledge and identity from the insidiously alluring, ingrained mythologies of the conquerors.


All works by:
Carl Beam
1943- 2005

Various Ways to Travel in North America
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991


Self-Portrait as John Wayne, Probably
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

The Proper Way to Ride a Horse
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

Sitting Bull and Whale
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

King and Kennedy
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

Lincoln and Ravens
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

From Calvary to Cavalry
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

The Unexplained
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

Semiotic Converts
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

Columbus and Bees
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

New World
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

Sitting Bull and Einstein
1990
etching on Arches paper
Purchased with funds donated by AGO Members, 1991

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