Even when he isn’t thinking as a photographer, Dawit N.M. knows how important it is to be seen.
Not looked at. Seen.
His photo of two girls playing in a street in Ethiopia, shyly hiding their faces in matching pink hoodies, is a portrait of innocence and youth. It isn’t one of starvation, death and calamity, which are often associated with the country in which Dawit was born.
A man holding his son, his watchful eye reflected in a mirror, isn’t an intercepted glance. It is the still moment of a dad who worries about being the best man he can be for his child.
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Dawit N.M., who was raised in Hampton Roads, recently opened his first museum exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art, “The Eye That Follows: Photographs by Dawit N.M.” For Dawit, who now lives in New York, the show is more personal because the Chrysler was the first museum he visited in the U.S. after his family moved to Norfolk when he was 6.
The show consists of 50 images that range from photojournalism to abstract photography. It includes his interesting and intimate take on family portraits and moments from solemn services at the Mekane Hiwot Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus and St. Arsema Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Norfolk. It also includes slices from his travels and moves, including New York, Los Angeles and Ethiopia. It will be on view through Aug. 16.
The work of the 24-year-old has been featured in The New Yorker and Vogue magazines. His photography a couple of years ago caught the eye of Ethiopian American musician Mereba, and he has directed three of her music videos. One, 2019′s “The Jungle Is The Only Way Out,” garnered him an “Emerging Directors” nod at the American Black Film Festival. The three videos play as part of the Chrysler show.
“For me, these images are a careful examination of reality, the result of when one just observes,” he said. “The idea of pushing what portraits could be, how close an image can get to depict reality fully, and finding the middle ground for those two endpoints are all tested in this exhibition.”
Sight — the literal eye and the metaphorical — plays throughout the exhibition. Much of it, Dawit said, comes from the artist discovering himself.
He was born in Addis Ababa and the core of his family lived in Ethiopia while his father joined the U.S. Navy and lived in the states. The family eventually reunited with a move to Norfolk. Even as a child, Dawit saw that Americans viewed Africans, particularly Ethiopians, differently. They assumed they were the desperate people featured in National Geographic spreads. It affected how he saw himself. He pushed away from his roots and wanted his classmates at Sewells Point Elementary to call him, “Sam,” short for his last and his dad’s first name, “Samson.” As he got older and learned more about Ethiopia, such as how it was never successfully colonized, he regained pride in his home country. He reclaimed his name. As an artist, he would later tack on the initials “N.M.” for reasons he likes to keep to himself.
By the time he’d reached high school, Dawit was fascinated with film and video production. He picked up a camera while taking classes at Old Dominion University.
His father, who had a debilitating stroke in 2011, became his first subject. The two had a strained relationship stemming from his childhood when he only saw his father during once-a-year visits, he said. Photography allowed them to spend time together. His father, he said, couldn’t accept that his body could not work as it had before, and he would often fall trying to do things he could once do.
It was that duality of what is real and what is perceived that Dawit became attuned to the world around him. Some of his work is the result of testing his skills as a photographer, such as distorting portraits of his younger brother and sister by taking the photo through a pollen-covered storm door in their Virginia Beach home.
One of the most dominant pieces in the exhibition is a silhouette of his mother titled, “Light Within.” None of her features show, only her presence, which Dawit said portrays her strength throughout his life. He took the image accidentally years ago and did not know what to do with it until he read a quote from author James Baldwin. He carries a snapshot of the quote on his phone:
In part, it reads: “Though black had been described to me as the absence of light, it became very clear to me that if this were true, we would never have been able to see the color, black: the light is trapped in it and struggles upward, rather like that grass pushing upward through the cement.”
Seth Feman, Chrysler’s deputy director for art and interpretation and curator of photography, said Dawit’s ability to produce images of “unseeing and invisibility with clarity” is why he wanted to feature the young artist’s work. Many photographers pick a theme and scout for images to fit that theme, Seman said. For Dawit, it comes naturally.
“I like the ‘Eye That Follows’ title because you’re just kind of observing things and it’s, in some ways, it’s a good reminder to stop and look and appreciate.”
One of the most poignant installments is a sound booth and photo installation called “Enaniet and Samson,” named for his mother and father.
The photo is of his father, naked, drying himself as he sits on a shower chair. Though his mother isn’t in the photograph, she is standing nearby. The muffled sounds that play in the curtained booth are his mother’s voice, speaking in Amharic. Dawit imagines that is what it would have sounded like to hear her voice when he was in her womb. Her presence is always there, even if it can’t be seen.
“With an image and audio piece filled with so much emotion, I wanted to give the viewer space and time to properly digest what they are seeing and what they’re hearing,” he said. “One needs time to understand what one sees, which the current media and to be honest, society, disallows. Not just understand on an intellectual level, but emotionally.”
Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504, email@example.com
Read from source The Virginian Pilot