Many images of Africa in Western media focus on war, famine or other crises that trouble the continent.
But Ethiopian artist Aïda Muluneh wants to help people understand that there's more to her country than what they typically see in the news.
Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Muluneh spent much of her childhood living in different countries — Yemen, England, Cyprus and Canada — before studying film at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She graduated in 2000 and then worked as a photojournalist for The Washington Post.
But Muluneh became increasingly interested in creating photography as art separate from her journalistic work — and in reconnecting with her Ethiopian heritage. So she moved back to Ethiopia 11 years ago.
Since then, she's been creating bright, primary-colored portraits that both celebrate and transcend Ethiopian culture.
Now her work is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) as part of Being: New Photography 2018, an exhibition lasting through August 19. After her move back to Ethiopia, Muluneh also created the Addis Foto Fest, the first and only international photography festival in East Africa. The fifth edition will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 2018.
NPR spoke with Muluneh to learn about the creative process behind her art — and what she hopes viewers take away. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
How would you say your approach to photography as art differs from your approach to photography as journalism?
There are certain things I can't express in my journalistic work that I can express in my studio work. My studio work is an exploration of color first and foremost. I approach it almost like a painter, focusing on the basics — which are the primary colors.
Meanwhile, your journalistic photography is black and white.
I have a running joke that in photojournalism, I can't see color. But for some reason, when I'm in the studio, it's these primary colors I feel strongest about. Eventually, I know I'll start mixing colors and I'll start finding other colors. But for now, I want to learn as much as possible from the primary colors.
It's also about pulling in elements from Ethiopia. Church wall paintings here use primary color. I want to show a different way of looking at my country.
What's the stereotypical image of Ethiopia that you think gets overdone in the media and art?
The cliché of Ethiopia is the starving child or the priest with the cross. Or war or famine. The international media are always consuming images not only about Ethiopia but across all of Africa related to those stereotypes. But this place has so much complexity, and I'm witness to that complexity. There are so many subcultures, there are so many contemporary things happening here, there are so many cities with interesting people who are trying to change the continent.
The thing I find unfortunate about international media is that it's not focused on that, and it's never about perspective. I'm not trying to tell people everything is hunky-dory and perfect in Ethiopia, but everything isn't dark and dreary either. I can come to New York and photograph a lot of homeless people on the street and say, "These are the alleys of New York," but that's not the full perspective.
So how did you come up with your own perspective?
My works are very intimate portraits. Everything is very flat. I remove a lot of shadows from the image and take a very graphical approach to photography. When I started looking at traditional elements of my culture — body ornamentation and tattoos — it's highly sophisticated. Unfortunately, Eurocentric history has dismissed this art as primitive. But, in fact, specific colors, lines and designs have different meanings. Even when you look at the movie Black Panther, a lot of [the movie's aesthetic] was inspired by Ethiopia. I find traditional culture to be far more contemporary than the contemporary itself.
Even though your images have these qualities rooted in Ethiopian culture, they're also almost otherworldly.
I'm trying to share my heritage but also to show the universality of people around the world. I've gone from looking at body painting around Ethiopia to looking across the continent to looking around the world. The Kayapo indigenous people of Brazil, Wodaabe people of West Africa, Maori people of New Zealand, for example, all used body painting. I realized from looking at all these different kinds of body painting that there are all of these lines of connection between different societies. Whatever our struggle, there's something that we share. The whole collection isn't a matter of looking at our differences. It's a matter of looking at the similarities that we share.
Your work also primarily features women. Why is that?
I'm a woman, and I'm sharing my experience with the world. I can't see myself doing that through a man's body. I feel as though there's a power in the gaze of the woman. Especially in Africa, women are our biggest assets. There's an expression that if you teach something to a man, you teach one person, but if you teach something to a woman, you're teaching the whole society.
The models I use are very specific. One that appears frequently is a makeup artist I came across randomly. I just loved her features — her gaze and long neck. Because I'm trying to share my experiences, these women have become my portal for that.
Let's talk about how you create your images. Where do you even start?
My work starts out with a sketch — more like chicken scratches. But I start on paper with the idea. Then I figure out what I need for that set. I look at a lot of archived images from Ethiopia in the 1930s and 1940s. People then looked so regal, and their Afros were so perfect. I don't know how they got it that perfect. I can't get anybody's Afros perfect today. You'll notice a lot of my clothing is long, and you don't see a lot of leg. That comes from these archived images because I don't want people to focus on the exotic or erotic features of the female body. It's more about her gaze.
For a piece like Fragments, I work with local fashion designers. I had a sketch of what I wanted and they pieced it together for me.
How long does it take to apply the body paint on the models?
That's not as bad as I thought it might be.
It would actually be quicker to spray the paint on, but I like the texture the brush makes on the face.
How do you get the right shot?
On location, often I'll have everything sketched. This comes from my film background. But what happens when we get on set is that I have everything planned out, and then I realize "I have to change this," and it's that magical moment I look for when I get that image that I seek.
How do you hope people react to your art in a gallery?
When you see my images in any show, you can see my work from a mile away. The colors are so striking; you can't miss it. I hope people Google my name and Google Ethiopia and see something completely different that they haven't seen in international media.
The topic of the MoMA exhibit you're part of is capturing what it means to be human. What do you think your photos communicate about what it means to be human?
The exhibit features images from a collection of mine called "The World Is 9," which is an expression my grandmother would say. It means the world is never a perfect 10. A lot of the challenges that we face come from within us. It's not based on our geographical location, it's not based on our culture; it's not based on our education. Someone in New York — whatever they're going through — and someone in Ethiopia are not completely different. We share commonalities. We have to question our own humanity and understand the universality of our existence.