A self-proclaimed “big sci-fi buff,” Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh believes in helping build the future of Ethiopia and telling the story of Africa that mass media doesn’t always show.
“I am a photojournalist at the end of the day, my main goal is to tell stories,” Muluneh said.
Her mother always encouraged her to think about what she could do for her home country. Muluneh ended up going back to Ethiopia, as an adult, to reconnect with a place that was foreign to her. She planned to stay for three months — and has now been living there for over 10 years.
“It was important to me to really be able to share, sort of, these different elements outside of the touristic images you might have seen of Ethiopia,” she said. “What I’m trying to show is again trying to see the complexity of a nation, and especially a nation that’s in transition. And I also say that ... this is the only place that I’ve lived in where you can see the past, the present and the future all in one space. So we’re literally at a crossroads between the traditional and the modern.”
In her “Crossroads of Afro-futurism in Fine Art” talk Friday, Muluneh told the story of how she became a photographer and photojournalist, and discussed the influence of Afro-futurism on her own photography.
Her photos, on display in two exhibits in downtown Lafayette’s Fountain Gallery until Saturday, center around Muluneh’s need to address the fact that the world isn’t getting better. They explore global issues such as colonialism’s effects on African countries, the plight of environmental workers in South America and what Muluneh describes as the “American obsession with race.”
Muluneh said the symbolism in her pieces can sometimes be surprising, as it comes from places both conscious and unconscious.
“This stuff, I’m consciously manifesting it, but apparently it’s my subconscious that’s leading the way,” she said. “So I’m not an artist to sit there and over-philosophize my work. ... I’m trying to express something very specific, but in that people read so many different things in it that I didn’t really think about, you know.”
Muluneh often takes inspiration from current events.
The two models facing back-to-back in the photo “Both Sides” were inspired by President Trump’s claim in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rallies that “both sides” were to blame for the violence that occurred. The bananas hanging in the background of the photo were inspired by the soccer players of color who took bananas opposing fans threw at them during games and ate them.
Photos such as “Seed of the Soul” and “Both Sides” feature models whose facial paint — half one color and half another on either side of a horizontal line right below their noses — is meant to evoke a sense of drowning.
Muluneh’s view of Afro-futurism involves not incredibly evolved technology, however, but traditional aspects of African society.
“So again, thinking of futuristic elements within the continent, you know most people think of Africa to be primitive,” she said. “I find that their traditional elements can be far more contemporary than the contemporary.
“When we look at body decoration, house decoration, it’s actually highly sophisticated. But it goes back to this European, sort of, colonization of thinking and also of taking to make us think that we’re not as modern as the rest of the world.”
In particular, Muluneh cited the Dogon people of Mali, who have a ritual based on a star that no one else can see with the naked eye, hidden in the glare of the bright star Sirius. The people were able to chart the orbit of the star as accurately as modern technology long before that technology existed.
Photography students in the College of Liberal Arts praised Muluneh for adding to what they consider an important and necessary dialogue.
“I think her work is really powerful,” said Sara Poer, a graduate student in photography. “I’m familiar with a lot of African-American work made in the United States and I think her voice added to that. I think it’s a really interesting perspective being on the continent of Africa and adding to that dialogue.”
Molly Phalan, also a graduate student in photography, pointed out that Muluneh’s work is at the forefront of a new wave in culture.
“She seems to be very informed but not in an overly powerful way,” Phalan said. “It’s lots of typical Ethiopian pictures that she did where this is a different take on it and I think that it’s great and that it’s colorful and taken in a new dynamic with Afro-futurism, and I think that’s definitely the way the world needs to see it, because that is where we’re headed, you know. So I think that it’s at the forefront of being a great interpretation of where it’s going and where it needs to go.”
For Muluneh, in the end it all comes down to the question of identity.
“One thing that I realized, not only in Ethiopia but globally, you know, people wear masks,” she said. “Whether it’s for power, whether it’s for fame, whether it’s for wealth, everybody has a mask that they carry. And in the end, it’s who are we behind that mask?”