Family, community, diasporic cultures: Dawit N M weaves threads of life through photography

From 20 June to 16 August, the internationally acclaimed photographer is exhibiting The Eye That Follows at The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

7 July 2020

When Dawit N M was a small child growing up in Ethiopia, a formative experience occurred which allowed him to see the world differently. A curious youngster, he remembers playing around a tree that his mother had previously warned him not to go near. A couple of days later, he formed an eye infection from the poisonous leaves. He tells It’s Nice That: “Every morning, I would wake up in darkness. The excess eye crust that built around my eyelids kept me from opening them.” He recalls how his mother would walk him to the bathroom, and gently rinse his face with hot water until he could open his eyes again.

“That experience stuck with me forever,” says the photographer and director now based in New York. “Those moments of not being able to see made me realise the privilege I had, I was able to see.” Born in Addis Ababa and raised in a small town called Tafo (Legetafo) until he was six years old, Dawit then moved to the States with his mother, to join his father who was in the US Navy. Moving regularly like many military families, the artist’s rudimentary experiences would go on to inform his beautiful and poignant work, as well as everything he would do.

When Dawit was in the ninth grade, his family settled in Annapolis, Maryland, and it was during a snowstorm that his interest in film initially started through playing video games. He taught himself the medium and committed to a career in filmmaking, a route that would later lead him to still photography; an art form he continues to excel at. Initially, his desire to learn about photography was a way to develop filmmaking. “I was ignorant of the possibilities and capabilities of it,” he recalls, it wasn’t until he enrolled in Shane Rocheleau’s class that he realised its potential. “I’m fortunate to have been in Shane’s class because of the lessons, especially the life lessons I learnt. I’ll forever keep and share them with others.”


Dawit N M: The Eye That Follows

In turn, Dawit’s photography examines the commonality of the human experience. Consistently, “the emotions that we decide to embrace or deny” are a backdrop for his work. Thought-provoking, he welcomes the viewer to sit with his work, consider the image, see it through the frame in which he was privileged enough to create, and figure out what they feel about the work – if anything at all. It’s a thoughtfulness expounded in Dawit’s new show The Eye That Follows. Showing from 20 June to 16 August at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, this show has a particularly meaningful place for Dawit and his photography.

When he first moved to the States, he attended a set of public schools in Norfolk. Each year he lived in Norfolk, he would go down the road to The Chrysler Museum of Art, and in a “beautiful full-circle moment”, now, Dawit is exhibiting his first show in this institution, the first museum he’d ever been to. Weaving threads of his life together through the set of images on display, the exhibition takes us through New York, Ethiopia and Hampton Roads. They are places he’s lived and worked, places with personal meaning evoked through images doused in universal themes: family, community, diasporic cultures.

His images question the transparency of narrative and how they are shaped by Western culture. It’s a mode of thought expressed in his first self-published photography book Don’t Make Me Look Like The Kids on TV, published in 2018, a volume where all his work in some form or other can be traced back to. The title, The Eye That Follows, however, places particular emphasis on moments of unseeing and invisibility. Seth Feman, Ph.D., deputy director for art and interpretation and curator of photography aptly says of the work: “The Eye That Follows is an exchange of glances that moves between Dawit and all those he films, weaving together a community from the immaterial space of these relationships."

GalleryDawit N M: The Eye That Follows

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Dawit N M: The Eye That Follows

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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