Not much happens in Eli Durst’s images of the Eritrean capital of Asmara—a man eats in an empty restaurant, attended by a waiter, someone take a picture on a palm-lined street. But there is a current of unease that runs through many pictures, from a beetle crawling through the dust beside a passport picture to the disintegrating sign advertising Internet access above a cyber cafe. Durst’s series, “In Asmara,” which won the 2016 Aperture Portfolio Prize, is on view at Aperture’s New York City gallery until February 10.
Durst traveled to Asmara in 2015 after meeting asylum seekers from Eritrea while volunteering at an immigrant detention center in Texas, and hearing them speak with longing about their homeland. He intended to photograph the city’s Modernist architecture, built while the country was under Italian colonial rule. But when he arrived to photograph for 15 days with support from a grant, he found many of the sites he’d read about closed and inaccessible or gone entirely. Residents he asked on the street about the buildings were reluctant to talk to him, a result of the same repressive government that inspired the Texas immigrants to flee. So, in a city that was once known as “Africa’s Little Rome,” Durst instead channeled the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and other Italian midcentury filmmakers, building a cinematic picture of the city where the architecture becomes a backdrop to everyday life—a lone figure sits in the audience at the crumbling Art Deco Cinemal Impero; an anxious-looking couple rides in the back seat of a car. Says Durst in a statement, “Asmara looks so much like the world I’ve seen in these midcentury Italian films,” a place with “a certain beauty with an underlying tension, where you have this setting but it’s disintegrating.” By substituting Asmara for Rome, Durst attempts to show what cannot be seen.