Ethiopian artist Aïda Muluneh’s striking photograph titled “The past, the present and the future” depicts three women with blue skin; it is extremely evocative, and reminiscent of the painting “The three ages of Woman” by Gustav Klimt. The photo contains pop-culture elements, calling to mind the comic book character Mystique from X-Men, or Neytiri from the movie Avatar.
Whether these references are intentional or not, Muluneh is no stranger to pop culture. The artist references another Marvel comic book-turned-movie — Black Panther — as a visionary work representing so-called “Afrofuturism”. To her, the movie borrowed a great deal not only from Africa but also from her native Ethiopia, a country that is still viewed through a stereotypical lens.
She is aware that many people in the West, as well as in the Middle East, have only a partial image of Africa. “They see only part of the present,” she points out, “and they are not able to imagine the future of the continent.”
Since her earliest days Aïda Muluneh has been committed to showing global audiences some past, present and future aspects of Ethiopia and Africa. This is why she was chosen by the Africa Institute in Sharjah to speak to Middle Eastern audiences about her country, through a two-part show.
The first part is “Aïda Muluneh’s Homebound: A Journey in Photography”. It will chronicle her journey as an artist and photojournalist. The second part, curated by the artist herself, will reflect on her journey as a founder and director Addis Foto Fest, which she established in 2010 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
This exhibition will be the centrepiece of the 2020 focus of the Africa Institute, themed “Ethiopia: Modern Nation/Ancient Roots”. It will be tacking Ethiopia’s ancient and postcolonial history, as well as the current challenges and conditions faced by its citizens.
The Africa Institute is a UAE think tank focused on research and documentation of the people and cultures of Africa. As the director of the Institute noted, a very old cultural connection runs between the Middle East and Ethiopia. The early history of Islam has a unique relationship with Ethiopia, as early converts sought refuge in the land of Abyssinia.
Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Aïda Muluneh left the country at a young age. Her global upbringing helped her to develop a multiplicity of viewpoints. Inspired by Ethiopia, she transcends it, making her subjects universal metaphors.
Returning to her birthplace in 2007 — after living in Yemen, Cyprus, England, Canada and the US — was a turning point for her artistic inspiration. She was finally able to give shape to an Ethiopia which up to that point was just imagined and dreamed. Today she is considered as a photographer with one foot in the West and one foot in the African continent.
Muluneh started in photojournalism, but she leaned more and more towards the arts when her editors encouraged her to make the switch. It’s a bit like Isabelle Allende — who started writing for magazines but was advised by Neruda to devote herself to fiction, as her imagination was best fitting the fictional realm. For Aïda, it was quite an intuitive decision: “My main thing wasn’t about making the decision, it was about what I felt comfortable in,” she reflects.
And the art dimension suited her well. While photojournalism tends to present images that shock the viewer, the kind of visual art that Muluneh is doing lures the viewer with a catchy look. There is a shocking layer, but this is revealed only upon closer inspection.
Inequality, immigration, prejudice, orthodoxy, ethics, colonialism and slavery are themes tackled through bright, bold colours and fascinating figures, with a reference to the artefacts, clothing and wall paintings in Ethiopian Orthodox churches. This is on top of embracing pop culture.
In Ethiopia, Muluneh has been one of the first artists to demonstrate that photography can go beyond serving documentary or commercial purposes; that it can be art.
That’s why the second part of her Sharjah show is dedicated to her role as founder and director of the Addis Foto Fest (AFF), the first international photography festival in East Africa. Since doing so, she has helped to establish educational institutions not only in photography, but also for media and communication.
Today she continues to educate, curate and develop cultural projects with local and international institutions through her company DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art) For Africa Creative Consulting PLC (DFA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
On an international level, she notes, the photo market is still male-dominated, and the Western gaze is still the prevalent voice for stories. That’s why Muluneh’s experience as a frequent jury member, as well as curator and educator, showed her that there is a need for more diversity, allowing different voices to step into the limelight.
Helping Africa’s artistic community to grow, as well as shedding light on the complex histories within Africa, Aïda Muluneh’s work shows us that the future of Ethiopia, and its relationship with the Middle East, is still unwritten. And, perhaps, still un-photographed.