Exhibit portrays life of Austrailia's aboriginal people. (Courtesy photo)
Exhibit portrays life of Austrailia's aboriginal people. (Courtesy photo)

It was with shock and sadness that the opening of the exhibit “Michael B. Platt + Carol A. Beane: Influences and Connections” was less the presence of half of the artistic team that created the visually stunning and deeply meaningful works on display.

In the predawn hours of Jan. 20, the image-maker, Platt, died suddenly and unexpectedly, turning the exhibit opening into a memorial, a wake and an opportunity to partake in the works that he and his wife, poet Carol A. Beane, created together for the last time.

The exhibit came out of the couple’s trips to Australia, where they encountered the aboriginal people and felt a kindred spirit that inspired the works on display.

“[Our] trips to Australia were for art exhibitions [yet]  they provided opportunities to see the country (as much as one could in a short time) and  museums — amazing places/spaces with complicated relations with aboriginal culture that per our observations and conversations with people, was in an ongoing process of being reevaluated,” Beane said in her own poetic manner.

“Acknowledgement of the first peoples, efforts being made to demonstrate respect and to have them tell their own stories,” she said. “[The] first trip was in 2012, the second [in] 2014. It’s an enormous country and we were privy to slivers. They really got under our skin, they have stayed with us — visual and visceral experiences — touchstones.”

The title “Influences and Connections” derives from “what we saw, conversations we had, overheard,” Beane said.

“We experienced our times there as a different part of the African Diaspora, and certainly historically there were similarities — their colonial experience, considerations of difference and identity,” she said. “Also with our pre-trip perceptions informed to a certain extent by the films we’d seen about Australia — ‘Rabbit Proof Fence,’ ’10 Canoes’ and others — and the aboriginal art we’d seen in the States.

“Friends here who knew artists there, or who had traveled there, are also part of the ‘Influences and Connections,’” Beane said. “The generosity and hospitality of folks we met, artists and friends and friends of friends [and the] stories [they] share[d].”

Platt’s images are multifaceted, richly layered and textured, and require deep gazing to register all the elements present in just one piece. Many of the works are accompanied by Beane’s powerful words, which both complement and enhance the visual images.

While most of the images are of women, Platt also included reworked images of aboriginal elders, such as in “Four Shells and the Storyteller,” which places a full figure image of a bearded elder against a backdrop of colorful designs, which on closer inspection reveal patterns created by what look to be spears and shields in a richly colored palette one might normally associate with many traditional aboriginal works of art.

The elder appears again as part of a group in “They Used to Come Out Only at Night #1” from 2018 that places the images of people within a deep muted-blue background as well as the forefront, where a group of intricately patterned women gathers at the feet of the elder.

Perhaps the strongest, most resonant images are those that are augmented by the words of Beane, who interprets and elucidates what we see in the images.

“When We Dance” is particularly powerful as three earth-toned figures stand in formation, while Beane’s words printed in white against a black background alongside, encompass the action and traditional aboriginal rituals filtered through her poetic vocabulary and phrasing.

“The poems just come,” Beane said. “Some, a line or two, at differing times, sometimes all at once. Sometimes from a recollection of an experience, or a bit of conversation, sometimes from a line or a mark Michael had made, or from something I feel I have not yet expressed to my satisfaction.”

In his artist’s statement, Platt had said “For the past three years my imagery has centered on ritual and the transformation of the human spirit that occurs when it confronts imagined or actual events and circumstances. Most recently, using digitally manipulated female figures to manifest such transformations in my prints, as well as the artist books and broadsides done in collaboration with poet Carol Beane, I have addressed issues of slavery, Hurricane Katrina, waiting, and searching for home.”

The exhibit is also richly imbued with remembrances of, and homages to the ancestors, whether verbal, visual or within the installation which includes mannequins of aboriginal people within the skeletal structure of a hut, empty spaces filled with bundles of tumbleweeds, baskets and strips of printed fabric. It also, very quietly and subliminally, emits sound effects relating to aboriginal life in Australia.

The aboriginal people, the original inhabitants of Australia, are the guardians of the most sacred lands and are the keepers of the ancient ancestral spirituality and stories, the ‘Dreamtime’, which find their way into the intricacies of the works by Platt and Beane.

“Platt’s art has evolved technically and substantively in the ensuing 25 years,” said Jack Rasmussen, director and chief curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. “This work places a greater emphasis on beauty, and the dramatis personae of his more recent paintings and prints tend to be women: strong women, not victims, who are taking control of their world. Platt’s commitment to social justice is just as present and uncompromising in this art, but he now gives us a future that celebrates the strength and vision of our ancestors carried forward.

“Perhaps this more positive vision is due to the strong influence of his life partner and collaborator Carol Beane, whose poetry accompanies many of Platt’s works in this exhibition,” Rasmussen said. “As Zoma Wallace observes in her catalog essay, Platt and Beane conceive of ‘unimagined tomorrows’ for the benefit of futures that might never be seen by the eyes of its owner.”

“Michael B. Platt + Carol A. Beane: Influences and Connections” is on view at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center (4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW on the American University campus) through March 17. An artist discussion about the exhibit, “Free Parking: Michael B. Platt and Carol A. Beane,” will take place Thursday, Feb. 21 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Go to www.american.edu/museum for further information and to RSVP for the artists’ talk.

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