The Capaciousness of Blackness: An Interview with Dawit. L. Petros

Dawit L. Petros, "Preoccupations (Rivista Coloniale), 1943," 2020 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Bradley Ertaskiran.

Not very long ago I read Toni Morrison’s Home. This, her tenth novel, chronicles the wayward journey of a young war veteran, Frank Money, making his way back home to Georgia. The novel reroutes the hero’s journey from the Mediterranean Sea to the American South, confronts all the colonial traumas that the Odyssey withholds, and delights in kinship rather than romantic unions. These matters of movement, home, and kin, and this image of the wandering young man in lands known and unknown loom large in Dawit L. Petros’s work, where the artist gives these questions countenance, piloting them across new seas.

Our conversation traverses rich literary ground, and roams from his homeland of Eritrea, to Canada, Italy, and Jamaica. We discuss his most recent exhibition, gaps, holes, fissures, and frictions, at Montreal’s Bradley Ertaskiran, and engage in the dialectic between colonial and post-colonial violence as we pause to extoll the capaciousness of Blackness.

Letticia Cosbert Miller: I’m interested in the kinship your work seems to have with literature. I’m thinking of Emmanuel Iduma who makes use of your work in his own writing, while also connecting you to others like Maaza Mengiste. I’m also very interested in the ways in which you are engaging with works like The Conscript by Gebreyesus Hailu, or the scholarship of Ghirmai Negash. What do you make of these relationships, and the relationship between the literary and the visual?

Dawit L. Petros: I’ve always understood the need to balance the production or the study of visual cultural materials with textual and written materials. With the understanding that an object (like a photograph or image) always has a threshold, all of the objects that I work with have a certain type of limitation. So, language, and literature in particular, has been a great way of opening up and expanding the parameters of the visual cultural materials that I’m working in.

All of the people that you’ve just mentioned have been important catalysts in understanding my own Tigrinya writing traditions. This is something that I’ve always tried to invest in, and you see it in the work that I do, and the conversations and the dialogues that I have with Ghirmai Negash, Emmanuel Iduma, Maaza Mengiste, Teresa Fiore. I’m really invested in those conversations, you know, really invested in how my research opens up their thresholds, and vice versa. And then finally, I’m also invested in the relationship between text and image, influenced by Walter Benjamin’s idea that the caption, the textual component of an image is what anchors is what really does or undoes the ideological work of a physical object, of a photograph, of a piece of cinema. And so, my primary medium photography tends to float, and it can float away from our own intentions, and I think this is where an investment in its proximity to the written word anchors it within a space in which one can do a certain type of work.

Dawit L. Petros, “Between departures, returns and excesses of image, Part IV,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Bradley Ertaskiran.

Tell me more about that. When you’re developing ideas and creating work are you thinking about things like pacing, tone, voice, narrative as, say, an author would? In other words, what role is literature itself playing in the making of the work, or the expression of the work?

A lot of the projects I have worked on have a chapter-like structure, in the way the logic unfolds. There are a series of ideas which get flushed out in a kind of scaffolding. And I think that’s how literature functions in that kind of a manner. So if you look at The Stranger’s Notebook there is the narrative of Fesseha Giyorgis, a figure gets on the ship, his relationship with the Italians on the boat, his interactions and his encounter with Naples, with Rome, and then this period of reflection. Each one of those sections of the book allows a different part of the narrative to be excavated. That kind of a structure unfolds in almost every single project [I’ve done] since 2013. Rather than chapters you may have images that are these performative type of constructed photographs, you have these highly abstracted images in which there’s very little figuration, there’s very little presence of the body. You have these other very, very poetic images; and you have these other instances in which the presence of a historical image is the archival material, is the impetus for a certain logic to be explored in another section in which sound is the dominant modality, or another section in which it’s moving image. So that kind of strategy with which each mode or each chapter becomes a way of excavating or dealing with a particular set of questions, that then cohere into the larger project. So that each individual thing proposes itself but is part of a much larger narrative.

I’m going to pivot slightly, to talk about literacy. You seem really interested in creating, or even unearthing a literacy around the colonial and post-colonial experiences in the Horn of Africa. Can you contextualize that research – where did it begin, and what has it cumulatively revealed to you over the years?

How I’ve arrived at this point, I have to go back to the conversation that we were having at the start, and understanding the specificity of my own historical and cultural trajectory within the context of Canada, a country in which we arrived with no sense of ourselves as Black – none. We were characterized by a diverse range of subjective positions around which race was not a focal or anchor point. Now part of that was because we were young, eleven, ten; but I understood immediately once we got to Canada that conferred onto us in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was a racialized, coded subjective position which overrode everything else. We came to Canada with a sense of who we were linguistically, we spoke Amarigna, Tigrinya, and we spoke English and Italian. We came to Canada as Eritreans, we came as refugees, we had a sense of ourselves as part of a very minority tribe, within the context of Eritrea. We understood ourselves as Catholic, my parents spoke fluent Italian. So there were a range of subjective positions which cohere into a whole bunch of fragments. And all of that was displaced by, we were now Black. So this became this position that we had to take on and understand. And growing up in Saskatchewan, it was a really interesting place to do that work, because of how Blackness was projected on me, my brothers, my family. And there was always a gap between us and what this idea was. It was in the experience of traveling and studying, back to Eritrea, throughout Canada and the Americas, that I began to account for these differences through my proximity to a large Haitian community, Afro-Caribbean community, and then also and then the looming beast, Black American subjectivity.

Whew! [both laugh]

And so a lot of the work that I was doing as an undergraduate student at Concordia, for example, really looked at these dominant representations of Blackness and how I understood them. I came to Concordia, making portraits and images and work of my Eritrean community. Once I got to graduate school in the United States I realized Black Americans presumed something about me, which was that I shared their vantage point. And my work was intent on undoing that expectation, illustrating the subject position that I was interrogating was radically different.

The flipside of this is the colonial framework that informs so much of my work, specifically around Italy’s formation of its empire in Eritrea, Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, which creates a certain history which has produced my post-colonial subjective experience – I wanted to understand that. So I have arrived now at a desire to ensure when I speak about the fertility and capriciousness of Blackness, that these other experiences, these colonial encounters on the other side of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, in Eastern Africa are not just footnotes to the Black Atlantic narrative.

Dawit L. Petros, “Untitled (Epilogue VI), Montreal, Quebec,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Bradley Ertaskiran.

Is this what the gaps and the fissures are making space for?

That’s precisely what the gaps, the fissures and the frictions are. So what’s interesting for me is that many Black, you know, specifically as many Black Americans, were really supportive of my work when they could see the connection to someone like Glenn Ligon, or more generally with the things that were happening within Black American context. But the moment it begins to look at this Italian question, there’s a sense of, we’re no longer invested in those questions. And I think, wait a minute. Black consciousness, Black Power is inseparable from what is happening in Africa. If you look at DuBois, Marcus Garvey –

– Fanon even.

– If you look at Fanon, they all understand that there is a key nexus around what is happening, say, with Haile Selassie and his speech at the United Nations. So this is where I’m at right now. And on the other side, the period in which I made The Strangers Notebook, I spent four or five months traveling West Africa, North, across the Mediterranean into Western Europe. And then I spent a great deal of time in Italy wanting to understand the Italian colonial experience, which is not like the British, is not like the French. It’s not like the German or the Portuguese or the Spanish. And so this is where this is, this is where I’m at right now.

I’m going to come back to the intersection between subject position and Blackness, but to make space for that conversation I want to ask first about movement. How does walking, wandering, traveling figure in your practice and process?

I think inherent to my politics is a desire to challenge sedentary existence. To be on the move, for me, it is a precondition by which my mind, my politics are always in a state of flux. And I mean that in a very literal sense. To walk means your brain and body are in tune with a mobility, which ensures that something is always shifting, you’re always coming up against something, you’re always coming up against something else. And as an aesthetic operation, that is a productive place for me to work from. But also, as a political one. I came to this country as a refugee. My mother, you know, tells enormous stories of walking. And so, you know, encoded within me are these narratives of a physical sort of moving, physically moving. But also within the context of my installations. If you look at all of my work, every exhibition, there’s never a single vantage point from which you can see everything. Everything unfolds in fragments. So that the only place that one can begin to put things together in a larger way, is the mind. It’s the walking in the moving.

Like a book!

Like a book. And so yeah, the condition of movement, of mobility, is a precondition both for a certain politics, but also for a certain empathy. And maybe this is my own immigrant viewpoint, but sedentariness can lead to a certain complacency. And please understand that I am in no way attempting to romanticize. I understand what the body of rest achieves and why that is necessary.

Dawit L. Petros, “A Constant Re-telling of the Future in the Past (Part II),” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Bradley Ertaskiran.

I think they are markedly different, complacency and rest.

Yeah, they are. They’re different. I just want to make sure that I’m not painting this romanticized notion of movement. I recognize, for example, we fled, we’ve walked and moved for a long, long time, from place to place, by necessity. I now have the privilege of walking and moving by choice through art.

I want to return to the subject position, Blackness, and Italy by sharing a personal story: in 2016 I spent several months traveling throughout Italy, mostly Sicily, along the Ionian coast. It was a jarring experience that threw my entire sense of Blackness into disarray, and then subsequently fortified it. Paramount was the way in which I saw myself being perceived by white Italians, who were always curious as to whether I was a migrant, juxtaposed with my lack of access to the Black Italians and migrants living in the cities – we didn’t speak the same language, they were not at the hostels, they didn’t have jobs at the attractions or restaurants I attended as a tourist. All of these moments combined taught me something about Blackness, its liminality, and its capaciousness, as you’ve mentioned. What did your travels through Italy illuminate for you?

There were some differences for me. Firstly, I had the facility of language and could move fluidly amongst Eritreans and be perceived by Sicilians as an Eritrean; and in that context, I was only a migrant. The gap between the historical conditions that have produced my family’s arrival in Canada and those that had brought these young Eritreans, Nigerians, Angolans, etc. completely dissipated. Secondly, even though my Blackness in that context allowed me to occupy a certain space, at any given moment, I would take these young people with me to the finest restaurant and completely disrupt the manner in which they read our collective Blackness, but more specifically, their Blackness. This class privilege, which allowed me to enter particular places and be given respect, was a really interesting experience for me, and one that was imperative for me to share. I was never unaware of it, the way in which I could create a space in a particular context, just as you know, just as others were creating spaces for me.

And what of Sicily in particular?

When I got to Sicily, I was in this unique position in that there was enormous contempt amongst many of the Eritreans for the Italians because for them, it was simply a question of why do they treat us like dogs? How can they forget that they were in Eritrea in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s? How can they forget that? At the same time, we were aware that many Italians were risking their lives to save Eritreans, Nigerians, etc. in the seas of the Mediterranean. And we would have these long conversations about the ways in which the Sicilians are colonized, too; that the manner in which they perceive us is the same manner in which they’re perceived by people in Milan who say “they’re not real Italians, they’re southern Italians, the African Italians.” Part of what was being replicated was the Sicilians’ own ingrained sense of racialized inferiority, vis a vis the north. How is it that that history has just been dislocated to allow this kind of thing? It was my experience in Sicily that made me want to invest more of myself towards understanding that question, which is: how are these unresolved questions of history continuing to shape the crises that we’re enduring right now?

Dawit L. Petros, “La questione Affricana / La questione, Italianna,” 2020. Edition of 2. Courtesy of the artist and Bradley Ertaskiran.

Is that the question, la Questione Africana/la Questione Italiana, that is referenced in your work?

That’s the question. The Italians cannot resolve the schisms within themselves until they understand how their formation as a nation state is intrinsically anchored in the formation of the nation state in Eritrea, for example. Without coming to terms with the manner in which their colonial and imperial project allowed them to manifest a vision of their own national subjectivity – without understanding one they cannot understand the other. So, for them, the African question was this problem to be resolved, and we were these problems onto which a solution was to be bestowed. But I think that question has a very peculiar way of reversing itself. And in the current exhibition, there’s an iteration of that question, which reworks an Italian pamphlet called del America dal Africa, from America to Africa, in which, in the 1890s, the Italians are attempting to figure out how do we take the people of our North American colony and transpose them into the East African colony. And I inverted that to say, dal Africa al America. So again, a way of saying that this Black Atlantic narrative, and the reversal of that question, are all connected historical processes. Slavery and colonialism are two sides of the same coin. Because what’s happening in Italy and what has been happening over the last 15-20 years is, is this whitewashing, this colonial nostalgia. These myths that they tell themselves, there’s this idea of the brava gente, the good people, like we were the good, kind colonizers, we brought modernity, we brought progress, we brought education, medicine, we brought infrastructure. And we were not like the French and the bastard British, etc. with their violence. All of this is contained within the question.

Perhaps this is a good point at which to turn towards your exhibition currently on view at Bradley Ertaskiran, gaps, holes, fissures, and frictions, which takes its beginning from a 1933 aeronautic event spanning continents. Tell me about this incident and how it’s contained within the exhibition.

So, in 1933 Italo Balbo, Benito Mussolini’s minister of the Air Force, leads a transatlantic flight of 25 planes from Orbetello, Italy, making stops in Iceland/Greenland, UK, Cartwright, Labrador, New Brunswick, Montreal, and it ends up at the Chicago World’s Fair at the World Expo. This arrival in ‘33 is heralded as this feat of technology, Italy’s arrival amongst the leading nation states of the world, and so a triumphalist narrative emerges, both of Italy as a nation state and also the airplane as a signifier of progress, civilization. All this in the same year the Italians began bombing what became Libya, dropping bombs from planes. Two years later, in ‘35, Italians invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea, and they used the technology of the airplane, and butcher many, many civilians and introduced poison gas. What I’m trying to connect is the idea that what is heralded and celebrated on one side of the world is being used to subject and to colonize on the other, bringing these two narratives together so that we cannot think about them as separable from one another.

Works like the constant retelling of the future the past part one, part two, which reassemble images of Italian and Eritrean labor in the colonial empire, on the one hand, and Italian labor in North America, building the settler colonial context, on the other hand, in order to understand the dynamics of power. that plays out when we’re looking at the Italians. So breaking apart and reconstituting these images, inserting these bands of black, tearing apart the images as a willful negation of the authoritative power of photographic documents, of the work that these images were supposed to do. And to insist that there is something else which enters the image, which those who have the power to make the photograph in a certain moment of unequal power can never ever fully authorize.

Overall, the work is really invested in asking the question: how can one continue to comb through the residues of colonial artifacts in order to articulate both their intended and unintended operations and ideas? How can I continue to do this thing, which is to force the Italians to reckon with the fact that their postcolonial moment has not yet arrived?

Dawit L. Petros, “Preoccupations (Rivista Coloniale), 1932,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Bradley Ertaskiran.

Your work engages extensively with notions of coloniality, post-coloniality, and is an earnest call for memory and accountability; in this context, what role is decolonization, as you understand it, playing in your work, if at all?

Yeah, well, I have a real aversion right now to the way in which “decolonization” is being utilized. But the way I would answer this question is to share a bit about the context in which I was raised, which is that we fled the war of liberation between Eritrea and Ethiopia, though that is the circumstance that gave birth to our genesis, the ‘how and why’ we left East Africa and arrived in North America. And the dominant framing of the narrative was always that we fled Ethiopian colonialism – that was the colonial question with which I was raised. The Italian one was never raised. And so part of the absence of the post-colonial impetus that is informing my work, that I’m attempting to understand is the way in which Eritrea’s national identity has co-opted and not interrogated our own modern formation. And we now speak as though we’ve existed for perpetuity that the colonial question that affects us is the EPO. So you see I’m deeply invested in understanding that colonial and postcolonial question which is very, very specific. And it’s one that a lot of people don’t think about.

In regard to rethinking post-coloniality, I read somewhere that Stuart Hall is one of your favorite scholars, which piqued my interest as a diasporic Jamaican who deeply resonates with your work. What effect has he had on you?

Huge. There’s a lot that I could say about but just his, you know, his insistence on and articulation of conjecture. This was hugely instrumental for me in attempting to understand the specificity of the historical conditions that produced me. I could not have done that work without working through Stuart Hall. I also discovered Gramsci through reading Stuart Hall, where I began to understand the questions of labor, the north and south divide within Italy. A key text was New Ethnicities, because I had to find a way to articulate a position that was responsive to how I as an Eritrean was operating within what was becoming a certain type of Black, African, Canadian positionality. More than anything else this has provided me with the tools to read my own existence in proximity to other frameworks, while always unpacking the very route in which I’m walking.

Were these questions you were always grappling with?

I grew up in a very political house with questions of belonging, not belonging, questions of freedom, questions of struggle, questions of sacrifice – this was dinnertime conversation. You know, this was a struggle for one’s subjectivity, what it means to lose oneself within the larger culture. Why one must fight in order to be in contact with one’s own language. How one fights for one’s history, fights to build and articulate one’s place. This was in the food, this was in the way we dressed. I experienced all of this through my community, through my family, but I understood the power of it through Stuart Hall.

A prismatic view of Blackness.

It was prismatic. His was an articulation of a complexity that I felt a greater kinship with, a political form of Blackness which was not just about dark skin, but a political position. You know, I used to host and DJ a Reggae show in Saskatoon, and it was super formative. I always say that almost everyone goes through their Bob Marley period, they buy the Legend album, but they don’t really understand the politics of Reggae, which is a militant music –

– informed by the politics unfolding in the Horn of Africa at the time. A kinship forming across oceans.

Yes! That’s what I’m saying. I remember when we were in Nairobi, and people would march in the streets and Reggae lyrics would make their way into slogans and chants. And it’s through this familiarity, this vocabulary that I engage with the Black struggle, say, in America. Not the other way around. This is the way in which culture and its vastness has power, has efficacy…

A wonderful place to end, just as we began – on kinship and culture.

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