by Rachel Vancelette for Urban Mindz
Determined to re-imagine, reshape and remold the image the global community has of Africa, particularly the West, Aida Muluneh has become a voice for "Afrofuturism," a term coined by Mark Dery in 1993 which explores the developing crossroads of African Diaspora culture with technology. The displacement and scattering of native Africans have created a diverse movement dispersed globally but still connected to their native African countries. This highly regarded, 45-year-old, prize-winning Ethiopian photographer from Addis Ababa speaks through her photographs with explosive primary colors bursting with layers of metaphor and imbedded with cultural meaning as seen through Muluneh's eyes and through the powerful gaze of her female subjects.
Educated abroad and having lived in Yemen, Cyprus, England, Canada, and the USA, a broader world view expanded Muluneh’s vision and helped shape an aspiration to question and challenge the stereotypes and labels attached to her native continent. Finding a new way to represent the futuristic vision and sophistication of Africa is her goal. Wanting to join the past, present and future, including culture, politics, outer space and history in a contemporary artistic way, her work is being recognized and acclaimed around the world.
For many years, critics have attached their assessment of African art, particularly when using primary colors, with words like ‘native’, ‘primitive’, or even ‘juvenile’, overlooking the colonial influence meant to put African art in a box. Identity politics, prioritizing only one particular view and social identity, excluded African art from the mainstream of the art world. The use of primary colors is as old as man. The earliest indigenous peoples, Native Americans, South Americans, Tibetans, Australian aboriginals and other indigenous peoples understood the representational nature of the core colors of the planet – sun, sky, water, and earth. From these, all other hues and tints can be mixed, much like everything else in our world, including the races of man. Undaunted by the fact she could neither draw nor paint, Muluneh chose a path for creativity in photography using photoshop, heavy face and body paint with the brightest of colors, reflecting native roots and traditional adornment. [The Ethiopian flag and dominant colors of the Orthodox Ethiopian Christian Church are primary.] Some viewers of her photos have walked away believing they just saw a painting.
Muluneh states, "My work often starts with a sketch, and I approach each image as a film production in which the character, set design, lighting and styling come together…” "I utilize face painting as a form in which the inspiration is driven by body ornamentation, not only in my country, but also various parts of the world. I am deeply influenced by various traditional cultures, hence in a sense, I am bringing the past into the future through various forms."
Unapologetic and bold in her presentations and writings, Muluneh feels obligated to change the narrative of Africa’s poverty, corruption, misery, wars and hopelessness. Powerful statements about political and social injustices have dampened her positivity but not her determination to make a difference with her colorful, impactful work. Because there was a lack of photography training in her country [and others], Aida created DESTA, Africa Creative Consulting [DFA], a creative consulting company determined to educate and enlighten other photographers and also the general public. DFA produced the 1st international photography festival in East Africa, the Addis Foto Fest (she is the director and founder). Photographer, writer, educator, social activist and champion of water solutions for the continent, this tireless artist’s works have been shown in many countries including South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Egypt, Canada, United States of America, France, Germany, England, and China.
Muluneh is passionate about a pivotal cause she has decided to tackle – WATER. The source of all life and a critical crisis in many of Africa’s countries including her beloved Ethiopia. For the most part, nearly the only thing the West really hears about Africa, not it’s achievements and contemporary culture, is its droughts, famines, brutal wars and the desertification which is swallowing lush greenery and turning vegetation into desert sands. It staggers the imagination to understand what the lack of clean water and sanitary conditions does to a society and its women. Aida has taken up the water crisis as her cause, particularly in Ethiopia where she now resides. Her latest photographic series, ‘Water Life’, commissioned by WaterAid and funded by the H&M Foundation, expresses these harsh daily realities, which affect a woman’s personal life and the future of their communities. To photograph for the series, she chose one of the most desolate, hot and dry places on earth, Dallol, Afar, Ethiopia to emphasis her message. Now, extreme weather events, severe droughts and flooding threaten to contaminate scarce water sources, spreading life-threatening diseases.
Water.org states “62 million Ethiopians lack access to safe water and 97 million lack access to improved sanitation. Of those who lack access to improved sanitation, a staggering 23 million practice open defecation. In rural Ethiopia, a Water.org survey found that many women and children walk more than three hours to collect water, often from shallow wells or unprotected ponds they share with animals. Recurring droughts result in famine, food shortages, and water-related diseases, as people are forced to rely heavily on contaminated or stagnant water sources.”
Saying the meaning of her photographs comes from a personal subconscious well, she tells others to find the meanings for themselves. It challenges us to even begin to explore the possible connotations and symbolism, but it is an enjoyable exploration within our own minds. ‘DESTA’ means happiness in the Ethiopian language Amharic. Aida intends to correct the disparate storyline between the old and the new thriving parts of Africa with all her ventures. With a seemingly unlimited capacity, Aida Muluneh is creating a ‘vision board’ for Ethiopia, the continent of Africa, and her audiences everywhere to contemplate and perhaps move to a more enlightened future.
Just a few of Aida Muluneh's many awards and exhibitions:
2007: European Union Prize, African Photography Encounters, Bamako, Mali.
2010: Winner, International Award of Photography, Centro di Ricerca e Archiviazione della Fotografia (CRAF), Spilimbergo Fotografia, Italy.
Ethiopia Past/forward, Christiansand Kunstforening, Christianssand, 2011
The World is 9, David Krut Projects, New York City, 2016
Being: New Photography, MoMA, New York City, 2018
Work from The World is Nine and 99 Series, VivaneArt, Calgary, part of Alberta’s Exposure Photography Festival, 2017
Reflections of Hope: Aida Muluneh in the Aga Khan Park, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, 2018
Ethiopian Passages - Dialogues in the Diaspora, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2003
Body of Evidence (Selections from the Contemporary African Art Collection), National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2006
Spot on..., ifa-Galerie Berlin, 2008
Spot On… Bamako, Vii. African Photography Encounters, ifa-Galerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 2009
Always Moving Forward, Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto, ON, 2010
I love Africa, Festival La Gacilly-Baden Photo, Austria, 2018
Being: New Photography, MoMA, New York City, 2018