“That’s not African”. It’s a phrase that keeps popping up in many of the interviews we’ve done over the years. A phrase that’s often articulated to an African creative by a non-African. Photographer and contemporary artist, Aïda Muluneh, is one of the artists from the continent working to, “tell the story of a continent in transition between past, present and future through our own authentic voices and lenses.”
Not only is Muluneh considered one of the leading photography experts in Africa, she’s helping to groom the next generation of photographers to succeed and surpass her. Be it through judging multiple photography competitions or creating platforms such as AFF and DESTA (more on this below). Her authenticity has garnered her multiple awards and even a place in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Who is the person behind the fascinating vivid imagery and why does she do it?
About Aïda Muluneh
Muluneh was born in Ethiopia in 1974 but would leave the continent at a young age after the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie. She spent her childhood in England, Cyprus, Canada and Yemen before moving to the USA where she graduated with a degree in film from Howard University in Washington, D.C. From there she settled in Canada where she worked for the Washington Post as a photojournalist. Although she lived a nomadic life, her childhood was shaped by her mother’s pride in Ethiopia. Her stories of her childhood and of the country became the source of consistency for Muluneh. She finally moved back to Ethiopia in 2007, which saw her gravitate from photojournalist to artist. Through her pictures, she aims to ask provocative questions that touch on different issues about life, love, different nations, its history and the people.
One way she captures this is using body paint. According to Jenkins Johnson Gallery, this was inspired by the traditional body art that is found on the African continent. You’ll also notice the use of traditional fabrics and baskets to not only represent Ethiopian culture, but also reflect her own life’s journey. Speaking to ARTnews, she articulated, “I’m interested in how we use culture as part of development. The work for me is about communication, rebranding my country, and teaching other photographers.”
You may be wondering why teaching photographers may be important to the commercial photographer turned artist. Growing up, Muluneh admits that she was embarrassed to admit that she was an Ethiopian. Due to the stigma associated with being Ethiopian, such as severe famine, she secretly wished she could be from South Africa. In a bid to ensure the next generation of Ethiopians can feel proud about their country and heritage, she set out to develop photography and arts in the country.
Firstly, by starting DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art), which curates and develops cultural projects. Additionally, Muluneh is also the also the founder of Addis Foto Fest (AFF); the first international photography festival in Ethiopia. The aim of this festival is to bring together photographers from around the world to create global partnerships and networks that can shatter clichés and shift perceptions of the continent.
A lot of the motivation behind her initiatives and work is to redefine how Africa is portrayed. Although Africa is a diverse continent, it’s often viewed through the prism of conflict, famine and chaos. In an interview with the BBC, she expressed that, “The one thing that keeps coming back is the misrepresentation of the continent. The lack of research by foreign photographers, and the lack of sensitivity when presenting challenging issues with humility often shows [Africa] in a negative light… So, like anywhere else, you have to show the complexity and the balanced side of the story.” Hence her emphasis on education as a medium to shift away from the lack of diversity. Not just concentrating on the artists themselves, but also using platforms such as AFF to educate the public on the impact of photography.
The images go deeper than the use of colour, wanting each image to be multidimensional in connotation. While the picture may be bursting with colour, she opts to position her characters sans expression. The idea is to create a blank slate that doesn’t represent a specific ethnicity or nationality, rather, a sentiment that exists within all of us. The sombre expressions further reflect her feelings towards the way her country is evolving. Then there’s the deliberate use of female models in her pictures, as women carry and preserve history. We’ll leave you with some of her productions so far to inspire you to consider how you are using your art to develop society and how your continent is perceived:
“Pulled between the past, the present and the future, we wrap ourselves with forgotten heritage and dream of looking towards the future, but we are stuck looking into the past. For eternity we are toiling with rituals and ceremony, yet our past deeds are marked by unhealing wounds, the blood of false victory stitched by the threads of nostalgia. A story we each carry, of loss, of oppressors, of victims, of disconnection, of belonging, of longing to see paradise in the dark abyss of eternity.”
“The Wolf You Feed collection is a reflection on the personal and outer battles that people face. The battle between good and evil, between the path we choose and the one that is chosen for us. Many of the themes in this body of work relate to human nature and interaction. The problems of this world are a manifestation of the deterioration of our societies and the obsession of our own mortality.”
“Living in Addis Ababa for the past nine years has been a lesson; a lesson in humility, and a lesson in what it means to return to a land that was foreign to me. Over the past nine years, an expression of my grandmother has stuck in my mind – she would say, ‘The world is 9, it is never complete and it’s never perfect.’ I thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t until much later as an adult that her voice echoed in my thoughts of whether we can live in this world with full contentment. ‘The World is 9’ draws from [my] own experience of migration and highlights an ambivalent notion of self-perception through the prism of others’ gazes.”
“[This] series further wrestles with the evolution of Ethiopian society. As the country’s growth brings better infrastructure and transportation with economic transformation, I am questioning: what are we compromising for the sake of our development and advancement?”