National Aboriginal Day – June 21, 2017

Beaverbrook Art GalleryJune 21, 20170 Comments

In celebration of National Aboriginal Day, we embrace the work of several aboriginal artists included in the collection. In particular, we’re looking at a selection of four artists whose artworks are currently on view in our Orientation Gallery – Shirley Bear, Alan Syliboy, Ned Bear, and Carl Beam.


Shirley Bear is a multi-media artist, writer, activist, feminist, traditional herbalist, and respected elder. A member of the Maliseet Negootook (Tobique) First Nation and the Wabanaki language group of New Brunswick, she is a leader in advocating for aboriginal and women’s rights in Canada. In 2009, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery organized and presented “nekt wikuhpon ehpit (Once there lived a woman. . .): The Painting, Poetry and Politics of Shirley Bear”. Bear states, “. . . being Wabanaki allows me to carry the knowledge of the land and stories that were entrusted to me by my ancestors, my grandmothers and grandfathers and those who went before them. This is what validates me, always”. Her work Oka Warrior (Fragile Freedoms #1), 1991 is currently on display in the Orientation Gallery.

One of the most prominent First Nations artists in the Atlantic region is Mi'kmaq artist, Alan Syliboy, who lives on the Millbrook First Nation reserve at the edge of Truro, Nova Scotia, and who has attained international recognition for his work. Syliboy has developed his own artistic vocabulary that shares affinities with European modern artists Klee and Miro while referencing ancient petroglyphs and folklore of the Wabanaki who were part of the ancient Eastern Woodland Indian culture. Characterized by simplicity of line and brilliant colour, his paintings serve as an expression of his personal research into and awareness of Mi’kmaq spiritualism and his First Nations cultural heritage. In his strikingly monumental geometric painting Quill Basket Mural, 2006, currently on display in the Orientation Gallery, he combines his rock drawings with a composite design of traditional indigenous quill work patterns. Through the sheer size and optical effect of this work, Syliboy draws an analogy between traditional Mi’kmaq design and modern colour field painting, and also creates a dialogue with First Nation’s artist Bob Boyer’s For All My Relations, 1989, in the permanent collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

For several decades, masks have been the unique artistic focus of aboriginal artist Ned Bear. His mask Namoya Otehiw Ayasawac (Pawakon Mask), 2003 can be found on display in the Orientation Gallery. “We are all related and connected by spirit,” notes Ned Bear, “I hope people see this when they look at my work. A mask can be a portal into an intimate dimension, a captured wink of a mystic time. Through the ritual of wearing a mask, we have the opportunity to access the power of transformation, and can embrace the spiritual significance of the Pawakon or spiritual helper.”


The work Full Moon Omega Leap, 2003 by Carl Beam is a work drawn from his notable series titled The Whale of Our Being. This important series of work explores the relationship between contemporary popular culture and traditional aboriginal culture. Full Moon Omega Leap is a work of considerable size originating from the late period in Beam’s career. During his career, Carl Beam attained the distinction of being the first contemporary Aboriginal artist whose work was acquired for the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. In recent years, moreover, the work of Carl Beam has been met with considerable national and international attention.

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