John Wood and Paul Harrison, installation view from ‘I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T KNOW IT’, Contemporary Art Gallery, February 12 – April 24, 2016. Photography by SITE Photography

Song of the Open Road | Dawit L. Petros by Michelle Martin

Installation view from 'Song of the Open Road', Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, April 1 - June 18, 2017. Photography by SITE Photography

“It is a grave matter to leave your land and your people and to go alone to an alien country. Although it becomes a simple matter later, at the beginning, when you think deeply, your heart lacks ease and repose.”

From An Ethiopian’s Voyage to Italy at the End of the 19th Century by Däbtära Fesseha Giyorgis Abiyäzgi

In 1890, Däbtära Fesseha Giyorgis Abiyäzgi traveled from Massawa, Eritrea to Italy. His written account of the journey is the first known secular text to be published in Tigrinya and the first travelogue in Eritrean literature.

Nearly 125 year later, Eritrean-born artist Dawit L. Petros began a journey not unlike Giyorgis’ across Africa and through Europe. A stop in Catania, Italy allowed Petros to connect with Eritrean migrants with whom he created a collection of images of them holding mirrors and archival documents.

These images became Untitled (2016) a series of photographs that have themselves circulated across borders and oceans on their own journey from London, to Kansas City, to Chicago and now to the Contemporary Art Gallery for the exhibition Song of the Open Road where six prints are now on view.

In Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view II), Catania, Italy, a young man holds up a sheet from a 19th century Italian newspaper printed in Eritrea which reads “Spazio disponibile”. The text translates literally to “available space” which originally indicated potential advertising space. In Petros’ photograph, it takes on new meaning: the space offers an opportunity to present new and overlooked narratives. In a contemporary context, “available space” is as promising as it is fraught –we now have the highest displacement levels on record.

Like much of his work, the Untitled series draws on the artists’ extensive research and travel.  Petros’ work reexamines the relationship between Africa and Europe, questioning how some stories of migration are privileged at the expense of others. Dawit L. Petros is currently based in Chicago, IL and New York City. In 2012, he was awarded an Independent Study Fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Song of the Open Road runs until June 18th, 2017.

-Michelle Martin