Carl Beam's The North American Iceberg (1985) was the first work bought by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for its contemporary art collection. (National Gallery of Canada)

Anishinaabe artist Carl Beam has been credited with opening doors for First Nations artists by becoming the first to sell a work to the National Gallery of Canada for its contemporary collection.

His The North American Iceberg was bought by the Ottawa-based gallery in 1986  — a date that the gallery itself acknowledges is "shockingly recent."

So a retrospective of his work that opens Friday at the National Gallery and will tour Canada and the U.S. seems like "a kind of miracle" to his wife, Ann Beam.

Carl Beam died in 2005 at age 62 due to complications from diabetes. His death came at a time his impact as a contemporary artist was just beginning to be seen.

Beam's wife recalls his eloquent letter to the gallery in the 1980s, requesting an exhibit of The Columbus Project, a huge body of work that challenges historic assumptions about the arrival of Columbus in the New World and its impact on indigenous people.


Carl Beam's Columbus Chronicles (1992) is one of many works that combines historic images and text with modern print techniques. (National Gallery of Canada)

"It was understandable at the time why it couldn't happen. I think everyone was afraid of what would the passionate Carl Beam have to say in such a big public [forum]

," she said.

The Columbus Project, which did get showings in dozens of other smaller galleries in the 1990s, is included in the NGC show.

Beam was known for his passion, for his assertive messages and for his contemporary aesthetic that combined native imagery with modern art techniques from around the world.

He worked on large-scale canvas, in ceramics and video and with sculptural constructions that included arrows and hatchets, but also strings of numbers, silk screens and pieces of text.

Greg Hill, the curator of indigenous art at the NGC has pulled together 50 of his works, from galleries across the country and from private collections for the show.

Hill called Beam an artist who "thought big" and built "intellectual bridges between the philosophies of Western and Anishinaabek traditions." 

Ann Beam said his wife was criticized for abandoning traditional First Nations traditions, but he wanted people to have to think when they looked at his work.

Made art for 'the human tribe'

"He showed his own indigenous culture but also the non-native culture," she told CBC News at a preview of the exhibit on Thursday.

"He addressed both. He said 'you're all part of my tribe now' and in the large scheme of things, there aren't any distinctions between races.… He made his art for the human tribe."

She recalled him working on the living room floor of the house they rented in Peterborough, Ont. There was no furniture in the room, just a rug and their daughter's toys, and they had to move around the edges of the room to avoid the large-scale canvases and constructions he was creating.

"We did all our etching work and printed Carl's editions on the kitchen table," she recalled.

"People came down hard on him for putting text in the work. 'There's been text in work since Egypt,'" he said.

In the 1990s, as Beam's work began to be collected across the country, the couple built an adobe house in the community of M'Chigeeng on the northern shore of Manitoulin Island.

Hill said M'Chigeeng had a huge influence on Beam's later work, including Plant Communication and The Whale of Our Being, which touch on human relations with the environment.

"It really is only recently that we are beginning to understand how indigenous art is part of art in Canada," said Hill, who adds that the NGC now owns 14 works by Beam in its collection.

Beam opened doors for contemporary First Nations artists, he said.

"Carl propelled that change and has been a great influence to a younger generation of indigenous artists and has been a model for new ways of considering indigenous art," Hill said.

The Carl Beam exhibit runs until Jan. 16, 2011, at the NGC. Over the next two years it will tour to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina and Thunder Bay, Ont., and to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

With files from Kate Porter