Why you need to know about Billy Beal, the great unsung Black photographer of early 1900s Manitoba

By | August 20, 2020
Plate 21: Group of men in front of combination cookshack and bunkhouse, probably near Red Deer Lake, Manitoba. c. 1920. (William S.A. Beal/Image courtesy of Robert Barrow)

As art museums undergo a significant shift in thinking about whose work they’re collecting, interpreting, and presenting, Black Canadian artists remain largely underrepresented in the permanent collections of encyclopedic art museums. One of these artists, who meticulously captured pioneering life on the Prairies in the early 1900s but has yet to be fully recognized in Canadian art history, is William “Billy” Beal.

Little has been published about Beal, an early Black migrant who relocated to rural Manitoba from the United States in 1906. A trained sawmill engineer, Beal was also an avid photographer and spent years documenting the people, events, and activities of his community in the western Manitoba region. Although Beal’s life has been written about by Canadian scholar Dr. Karina Vernon and a handful of local historians, the significance of his practice as an artist and cultural producer is still lesser-known within Canadian art history. And this lack of recognition speaks to the ongoing “absented presence” of Blackness in Canada, where Black life is perpetually seen as “new,” with our vast history often going overlooked.

Shortly after I moved to Manitoba, I stumbled upon Beal’s life and work. Although I studied art history in graduate school, I had never seen or heard about Beal in any of my textbooks — so I was intrigued by what I could learn.

Not much is known about Beal’s life prior to coming to Canada, but records show he was born William Sylvester Alpheus Beal in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1874 and arrived in the western Manitoba region of Swan River Valley in 1906, having emigrated from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like many others, he came to Canada in search of new opportunities.

Plate 12: Gus and Louie Jonsson skidding logs on their homestead with their horses, Grey and Jim, Big Woody district, Swan River Manitoba. c. 1916. (William S.A. Beal/Image courtesy of Robert Barrow)

In the early 1900s, the Dominion Lands Act paved the way for immigration policies that would result in a massive campaign to entice people to live in the Canadian Prairies. Motivated by self-interest, powerful politicians explicitly favoured British and White American settlers, with the intention of continuing the land dispossession of Indigenous peoples, particularly the Red River Métis nation. Immigration advertisements were widely circulated. Beal likely would have seen one of the posters, ignored or defied its preference for White settlers, and made his way to Manitoba anyway. Not long after Beal came to Canada, the Canadian government — under the leadership of Prime Minister Laurier — passed a new policy in 1911 banning Black people from immigrating to the country.

Beal was a self-taught photographer. And considering the bleak history of pervasive anti-Black racism in Canada, Black artists experienced barriers to opportunities, limiting their access to the training required for professional designation. Nonetheless, Beal took remarkable photographs of homesteading in rural Manitoba from 1915 to 1925, and only about 50 photographic plates of his work still exist. On one of the plates, I’m drawn to a self-portrait of Beal. In the image, Beal is bright-eyed and solemn-faced; his demeanour is stoic and self-assured. He’s wearing a dapper suit and tie and is seated in front of a draped curtain backdrop. The compositional elements and lighting of the photograph indicate a serious level of thought on the photographer’s part to convey an air of prosperity. Given that Beal’s primary occupation as a sawmill engineer involved operating heavy machinery to process lumber, his everyday clothing would’ve been functional and rough — but in the photograph, he’s dressed for a special occasion. He shows us exactly how he wanted to be remembered.

During that time, the popular images of Black people that circulated in Canada were primarily racist and dehumanizing: blackface minstrelsy, Black people as childlike and in positions of servitude. In the self-portrait, however, Beal subverts the White gaze and presents a counter-image, in which he is dignified and poised — a pointed act of resistance to the mainstream misrepresentations.

Plate 42: William S.A. Beal, self-portrait, Big Woody district, Swan River, Manitoba. c. 1918. (William S.A. Beal/Image courtesy of Robert Barrow)

Carly Morrisseau, a Manitoba-based artist and arts educator, worked as co-researcher on the life and work of Billy Beal during their role as curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. Morrisseau recalls their first time encountering Beal’s work: “Beal’s photographs not only provide a unique look into the past, but his work is framed through the perspective of a Black Manitoban who had lived a life marred by racism. His work also reveals a window into what life was like on the Prairies through Beal’s own eye for landscape, portraiture, and environment. As an Indigenous person born and raised on the Prairies, I ask for Canada to do better by Black Canadians. We can start by acknowledging one of the first early Black Manitobans in the Prairies, by honouring his memory and his work.”

I moved to the Prairies in 2018 to take on the position of curator at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, where I worked with Morrisseau, shortly after completing my term as the inaugural curator of Nuit Blanche Toronto’s Scarborough zone. Just recently, I moved to Saskatchewan for the position of director/curator at the Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina Public Library. As I continue to learn about my new home in the Prairies, I apply the African principle of Sankofa as a framework for understanding the region’s past and my community’s future within it. The Sankofa principle explains that one must understand their past in order to know where they are going. As art museums across Canada go through one of their most significant cultural shifts in recent history, the principle can be a useful framework if we truly want to understand the narratives of Black Canadian artists today and imagine new futures.

I ask for Canada to do better by Black Canadians. We can start by acknowledging one of the first early Black Manitobans on the Prairies, by honouring his memory and work. – Carly Morrisseau, curatorial assistant the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba

Permanent collections in museums serve as institutional archives and provide opportunities for research, knowledge dissemination, and presentation of work. What knowledge is lost with such a limited view of Canadian art history? How can we reshape the future of Canadian art history? Despite shortcomings in equitable representation, some strides to effect change in permanent collections are underway. For instance, under the stewardship of Dr. Julie Crooks and Sophie Hackett, the Art Gallery of Ontario recently acquired the Montgomery Collection, a groundbreaking collection of Caribbean historical photographs. But there is still more work to do. The acquisitions process can be lengthy and often involves the delicate work of cultivating relationships with funders and private donors. But undoubtedly, the historical work of Billy Beal — an overlooked but significant Black artist of rural Manitoba — deserves national recognition, professional preservation, and care.

As I reflect on the life and work of Beal, I also consider my own family’s history in the Prairies. My grand-aunt was the first in my family to arrive in Canada; she left her home in Jamaica in 1958 in search of new opportunities and eventually found work in Calgary as a live-in caregiver for a wealthy White Canadian family. And now here I am, more than 100 years after Billy and 60 years after my grand-aunt, finding my place in the continuum of Black Canadian presence in the Prairies. One must understand their past in order to know where they are going.

Plate 37: Lillian Elizabeth Henderson, Big Woody district, Swan River, Manitoba. c. 1920. (William S.A. Beal/Image courtesy of Robert Barrow)
Plate 41: Gus Jonsson, Big Woody district, Swan River, Manitoba. c. 1918. (William S.A. Beal/Image courtesy of Robert Barrow)
Plate 32: Unidentified man and woman, probably Big Woody district, Swan River, Manitoba. c. 1918. (William S.A. Beal/Image courtesy of Robert Barrow)

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