Dawit L. Petros Captures the World with a Camera and a Cardboard Box
In his photographs, Dawit L. Petros employs geometric forms and desolate landscapes to explore the specificity of place. Petros travels widely to produce his work, capturing scenes from around the world, like a grey day on a Santa Barbara, California beach or fields of withered trees in Nazareth, Ethiopia. He brings focus to the subtleties of these sites, using the recurring image of a cardboard box to anchor the various settings he explores.
Born in Eritrea and based in New York, Petros is currently included in an international group show, “The View From Here,” at Tiwani Contemporary in London—a gallery that specializes in the work of artists from the African diaspora. Petros, who was a fellow in the prestigious Whitney Independent Study Program, takes a modernist approach to photography: he employs a formalist lexicon, using line, form, and color to explore ideas around image-making. For his work at Tiwani, Petros placed a cardboard box in each image, a simple shape within the picture that activates each space. “There’s a specificity to each location that appears in the video and photographs,” Petros has said of his work. He strives for viewers “to recognize and question their proximity to these other places.”
In Single Cube Formation No. 2, Santa Barbara, CA (2011), the artist stands on a beach, his back to the Pacific Ocean. His legs are spread about shoulder width apart, in a strong stance reminiscent of classical figures. The box covers much of his upper body, including his arms, head, and most of his torso. It is canted at a slight angle, forming a diamond shape. Lifted slightly above the horizon line, the strict geometric shape contrasts with the irregularity of the surrounding space, and highlights the waves rolling into the beach in rippled lines.
Single Cube Formation No. 3, Marfa, TX (2011) shows the box alone in a scrubby desert landscape, propped against a tree cholla cactus. It’s tilted slightly upward at the sky, forming a rhombus shape, and is dwarfed by the spindly yuccas and bushy grasses around it. Dawit’s use of geometric forms is reminiscent of photographers such as Bill Jacobson and Eva Maude Tardif Champoux, both of whom use naturally occurring shapes as graphic elements.
Finally, in Single Cube Formation No.4, Nazareth, Ethiopia (2011), Dawit reappears in the frame, holding the box again. This time he is squatting, his arms bowing outward to hold the box over his face and shoulders. Behind him, Ethiopian plains roll up into distant hills. His bright green shirt and blue jeans contrast with the earth tones of the box and the prairie. These simple relationships call attention not only to the aesthetic choices Dawit makes, but also to the various places in which he works and their cultural nuances (even when they’re not visible within the frame), each sharing some similarities and profound differences.