By Omid Memarian
It’s almost impossible to have a comprehensive discussion about the African art scene and not mention Aida Muluneh. At the age of 44, her photos have already captured the hearts and minds of the international art world and appeared on the walls of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as well as in several presitigious publications including the lauded art section of the New York Times. From March to August 2018, five of Muluneh’s photos were exhibited at a MoMA group exhibition titled, “Being: New Photography 2018,” prompting glowing reviews of her use of painting and photography to challenge notions of race and identity.
As the creator of the Addis Foto Fest, the only international photo festival in East Africa, Muluneh told Global Voices that hanging her images on the white walls of museums and galleries is the easy part. “The difficult part is the advocacy of promoting other photographers, running the festival, teaching, because, in the end, it’s not about my arrival at the destination,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s also about: How do I help others reach that destination?” As a photographer, Muluneh has also kept one foot in the West and one foot in the African continent. “And the thing that I’ve seen is that the challenges of black people are a global phenomenon and not just an American thing or an African thing,” she adds.
Born in 1974 in Ethiopia, Muluneh’s global upbringing helped birth her strong desire to question and confront stereotypes of the continent. After spending four years in Yemen and learning English in the UK, Muluneh went to boarding school in Cyprus and then immigrated to Canada. From there she made her way to the US where she was mentored by African American photographers at Howard University.
During a short stint as a photojournalist at the Washington Post, Muluneh displayed a talent for pursuing her assignments from every angle. Her commitment to honoring both sides of a story is also evident in her news/documentary and fine art photography, where multiple layers of a narrative are embedded within each frame. At first glance, her photos may seem easy to understand but her powerful use of primary colors, cultural elements, and historical narratives ultimately transport her audiences to a sophisticated world where they are exposed to a nuanced representation of Africa’s cultural and artistic development.
As one of the world’s leading African artists, Muluneh gives life to artworks that transcend geography, class and cultural differences. In her own words, she is determined to show “the other side of Africa” as it is. “Our cultural background has an impact on how we perceive the world and this is why it is important for those of us from the [African] continent to show the other side. To show that there is modernity in Africa and that not everything is depressing.”
In her interview with Global Voices, Muluneh explains her journey as a fine art photographer and her tireless efforts to train and empower other African artists who also challenge stereotypes about the continent:
Omid Memarian (OM): A few years ago, in response to what a good photo is, you quoted Irving Penn that “a good photo is the one that communicates a fact and touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it.” After 10 years of photography, how close have you become to this description?
Aida Muluneh (AM): I’m getting there, but you know, I’m obviously ambitious so I’m trying to get a wider sort of outreach. For me personally, that has been my main objective, not only in my work but also in the teaching that I do and the work I do in Ethiopia. It’s not a matter of creating work that’s only addressing a certain elite group. It should transcend geography and whatever class background. And that is what I strive for personally within what I know best, which is creating these works and you have to remember that I’m still also a photojournalist. So I’m trying to achieve specific goals with the work.
OM: You worked as a photojournalist for two years at Washington Post and then you moved towards a new genre of work, fine art. What couldn’t you achieve in photojournalism that pushed you towards this genre?
AM: I remember at that time, my editors would be like you are an artist or a journalist and you need to make your decision and my main thing wasn’t about making the decision, it was about what I felt comfortable in. So in that sense, the things that I’m not able to say in a journalistic form is kind of motivated into my fine artwork.
Obviously the fine work within one frame is a lot of complexity within each image and for example you can talk about the challenges of this world in a journalistic way but I feel people have become numb to it, with all the influx of images of suffering, whereas through my fine artwork, you see a lot of colors and a lot of graphical elements, but the key thing is to try to make people dig into each image. Because, obviously they are attracted by the colors first, but when you sit with an image and even when you read some of the notes for each image, it actually has a deeper layer to it. So as you know in journalism, you need like a set of images to tell that one story, I’m trying to be able to embed a lot of messages in one image. This is a different way to speak about different contemporary issues that attract a different viewer or even the same viewers that have been seeing all these images coming through in relation to the continent, but at the same time, I’m trying to advocate for the future of Africa as opposed to always looking at the past.
OM: Does it happen that sometimes in telling a story or expressing a feeling, you go back to taking a photo the way you were doing when you were a photojournalist? Besides what you do now, do you take any other photos?
AM: Yes, the language is still the same, when I did the piece for the Washington post on the drought in Ethiopia, my main challenge was to how to address the drought in a sort of dignified way. To show that yes, there are challenges, but I’m not here to just talk about the peachy stuff and that there are challenges in my country and there are challenges in the continent. But I feel that the industry has sort of perpetuated the cliché over and over again and people might think that’s the only image that exists for the continent. So within my journalistic work, if you go back even when you go inside my Facebook; I was trying to show something different than what people would expect of Ethiopia. With the fine artwork, it’s the same thing, I’m still digging into the culture, I’m still digging into the topics but presenting it in a way that people did not expect. And to sort of provoke people in a different way. I’m not here to offer answers, I’m just asking questions and at the same time each piece is my visual journey.
OM: You have talked about advocacy of cultural ownership. What do you mean by that? And is it reflected in different projects that you have completed in the past few years?
AM: For me hanging my images on white walls of museums and galleries is the easy part. The difficult part is the advocacy of promoting other photographers, running the festival, teaching, because, in the end, it’s not about my arrival at the destination. At the end of the day, it’s also about how do I help others reach that destination, because as we have the numbers then the dialogue will change and the visual representation will change as well, of how people see Ethiopia or the continent.
I believe that culture needs to be a part of development and that’s a key point for me. But more importantly, obviously I’ve been educated in the West, and I spent a lot of time outside of my country, but I spent that time as an immigrant in all these different places, so returning back to Ethiopia was really a way for me to show that. When we look at the traditional elements in the continent, they are actually more contemporary than the contemporary. There is so much sophistication and so much beauty in it that to me is not permitted and is actually futuristic in some sense. Because of just how media has portrayed us on a global scale, the key point for me is that we are part of this conversation as far as the impact on a global scale as people of color and what we have on contemporary culture.
Even seeing that all of a sudden Africa is hip, it’s not just that we just started making the work last year. We’ve been making the work for a long time, it’s just now because we have access to these different portals we can take these cultural elements into the international arenas, but also to show that being African is really more complex as well and it’s not just one thing. There are different definitions and different interpretations and I just happen to be one of those.
OM: Your work is aesthetically bold and beautiful, because of the use of primary colors, which is one of the major characteristics of your work. But at the same time, it touches upon the most significant issues of our time, such as inequality, immigration, prejudice, and slavery. People might not even unlock the codes in the first look. What's your thought process in creating this creative approach?
AM: A lot of it has to do with my global upbringing in the sense that I spent four years in Yemen, I learned English in England first, went to boarding school in Cyprus and then we immigrated to Canada. I’ve had a very global perspective in that sense and then obviously I went to Howard University, which is an HBCU and then my mentors were African American photographers. I’m one of those photographers where I have one foot in the West and one foot in the continent. And the thing that I’ve seen is that the challenges of black people is a global phenomenon and is not just an American thing or an African thing. It’s a global conversation that has enough connecting points to address this. So showcasing at the African art museum at Smithsonian was sort of an opportunity to, in a sense come back home for me, because I started at Smithsonian when I first exhibited there in 2003, but it was also to really see how disconnected we are as the global diaspora and how the challenges we face are slightly different but at the same time there is a lot of similarities within that.
[…] There is always misconception but that misconception can only change if we are part of that conversation. Not the foreign gaze but sort of our own internal gaze to understand ourselves better and also have the world understand who we are.
OM: There are these artists and photographers that are intuitive and others who rely vastly on research and preparation. Where do you stand between these types of artists?
AM: It’s what works for you, I can tell for myself and I can’t speak for other artists, but to me, it has to emotionally provoke me. It has to be something that’s related to my life because I can only do things that I can relate to as opposed to things that I know nothing about. I used to say an artist is really someone who vomits what’s inside of them and presents it to the world with a nakedness and with the truth of love with it. What I’m presenting is really just my emotions. That’s what I’m sharing with the world.
OM: What’s the significance of consistently using primary colors in your work?
AM: The first intention was that, if I would have been a painter, I would have been a painter but I can’t seem to draw so the painting of the body is the expression of my frustration about not being able to paint and draw. But […] The key thing is that I’m looking at it as the beginning stages of my artistic life even as a painter you start with primary colors before you start mixing colors. I’m looking at it as phases and that’s the first part. The second part is that a lot of it comes from the Orthodox Church paintings in Ethiopia, which are heavily based on primary colors. If you come to Ethiopia and look at a church painting, you’ll find that these colors exist within our culture. I don’t know when eventually I move away from primary colors but these are what I feel comfortable with now and it’s what I feel inside and also what I want to express seems to come out of these colors. It’s strong colors but there is also darkness within each image. The color attracts you because you wonder what the hell is that, normally in a festival or any fair, I know my images are there; you can see them from a mile away and that brings people closer. The whole point is that I’m attracting people to the colors but I’m having a multi-layered conversation within each frame.
OM: Women, primary colors and exploring identity are the most striking elements in your photos. How do these elements connect to your African experience?
AM: Yes, I’ve been asked that before, whether I photograph men, and I have tried it before, but I realize I’m attracted to a very female-led conversation because I’m a woman trying to express my feelings, my emotions, my experience. And these females’ characters are like actors in a film so even the use of the color is a strong message that I’m trying to convey. It’s basically like you are in a buffet getting ready to eat and you are going to pick the meals you like. So these are the colors I like so far and if you notice the work, it’s very graphical, because I’m trying to create a sort of a flat, almost like a stamp, of my work that is removed of shadows. I’m very particular of how I shoot technically and even the posing and the gaze are very strong of each woman, because I’m trying to portray that regardless of circumstances and challenges, I feel that as women, especially within the continent we have endured a lot, but at the same time we are maintaining our strength and our dignity. And a lot of this goes back to our roots and culture, so within that, there is specific coding that I put in that an Ethiopian coming to the exhibition would recognize. For foreigners, they see the graphical elements of it, but what I hope for is an exploration for them to be like oh what is this great Ethiopia. Honestly, if I wasn’t back home, I don’t think I would be creating this work, because it is being Ethiopian that’s inspired me to approach my work in this way and to have these types of conversations.
OM: Your work communicates well in many countries that you have shown your work. How do people in Ethiopia respond to your work?
AM: Very positively. It was very surprising to me because the comments I’ve received from artists is that I’m basically showing that photography is art. And that it’s not just for documentation or commercial purposes and that you can use any tools as long as you are expressing something specific. Some audiences in the West think that they are actually paintings, that is kind of funny to me since they are photographs. Even at the MOMA, somebody asked me what are these paintings, or if I’ve made a collage? And I said no this is actually photoshopped, body paint and clothing. It’s a very simple production line. People say that I’m doing something highly sophisticated; even the whole body paint is not a new idea. It’s just what I’m expressing and how I’m piecing it together. It might be new to people but again it’s pushing photography into a different realm that you can create and work that expresses a specific message but anyone looking at it at a minimum they’ll be like ‘what is this?’. They will remember it and it will sort of burn into their brain, where they realize that they didn’t know that you can do this with photography and didn't realize that you can have such a strong statement using photography outside of a commercial application.
OM: You went to film school and experienced dark room in your high school first. What’s the impact of school for people who want to pursue art or photography? Does it direct them in the right direction or ties their hands, creatively?
AM: The last class I took for photography was also the first class, which was in high school at the age of 16, where I had the opportunity to be in the dark room. When I went to Howard, I was actually in the school of business. My plan was to become a lawyer and also do international law. But the guy at the communications department saw my work and told me that I’m in the wrong department and switched me to communications which gave me the opportunity, not only for the creative side but on the technical aspect of it too, and also to understand the impact of media and communication. Most recently I was asked this question that, ‘do you need to go to school to be a photographer?’ and to me not necessarily. The one thing that an education can give you is giving you a broader sense of what is already out there and also to prepare you of how to use your tools. But in the end, when you graduate, it’s about what you are going to do with those tools that you learned? Because, as I mentioned, teaching technical is the easiest part, the difficult part is teaching creativity and that is either God given to you as a natural talent or it’s something that you have to work towards.
OM: What should change in people’s perspective regarding Africa, African art and more specifically Ethiopia?
AM: It’s a complex continent and Africa is not just one country. It has such a rich place, which is a continent where you see the presence of the past, present, and the future. What the world is only really seeing is either the past or some part of the present and they are not able to imagine the future of the continent. Now especially with the movie ‘Black Panther’, which borrowed a great deal not only from Africa but also from Ethiopia, it’s changing the dialogue in regards to afrofuturism. I think you have to bear in mind that there isn’t a single story and this is the conversation I’m trying to have for Westerners to understand that it’s not just about one story. There are many stories. I remember once, I was asking people in a presentation, when they think about Paris, what do they think of and they said the Eiffel Tower, or when they think about New York, they think of the statue of Liberty. And when I asked about Africa, their answer was animals, starvation or traditional culture. Nobody can imagine the contemporary of the continent. As a person, who is contemporary in so many ways, I’m trying to show the world that there is this diversity that exists within the continent. A lot of times, when people come to Ethiopia, they think within one mindset, but when they get there, they say wow we never imagined that this place has so many different things and so many cultures, and contemporary activities. So the conversation I’m trying to lead is that our perception should not be limited to our cultural background and what we think about the places we don’t know much about.