Aida Muluneh’s world is a striking, surreal amalgamation of stories. Her photographs are connected to each other, whether through theme or aesthetics, as well as symbolising something bigger than her.
Walking through her solo exhibition at Efie Gallery, Al Khayat Avenue in Al Quoz is an experience meant to be savoured. Pace yourself and pause in front of each image to revel in her artistry, in how she references different art practices and art history, and you will recognise that Muluneh’s work is a powerful proclamation.
“Art is about your own vulnerability, which means that it's your own truth,” Muluneh tells The National. “This is what I teach young photographers. If you're not able to express your own truth, the audience also reads into that.”
Muluneh, attuned with the language and power of storytelling, has taken landscapes, symbols and the varying truths of particular places and experiences and laid them out in arrestingly stunning narratives.
Her works, which have been collected by international institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, push what the medium of photography can do.
The Art of Advocacy, the title of her solo exhibition, combines celebrated pieces from three series, including commissions for the Nobel Peace Prize. It demonstrates a unified ethos both in the ideas Muluneh grapples with and the unique aesthetic language she uses to express them.
Geometrically balanced and considered compositions that feel cinematic draw the viewer’s eye in and across the frame.
Women with reinterpreted traditional face paint pose against dreamlike settings. Choreographed, serene and still, they stand, sit, kneel, lay and are frozen in movement. Some hold jugs or umbrellas, others wear masks and point to the horizon as they stare decisively out at the viewer, at each other or beyond the realm of the frame. Their garments fly about or frame them as part silhouettes of bold colour, against placid, dark or flat backgrounds.
Each image is replete with layers of narratives. “Everything is mathematics, everything is sketched out beforehand,” she says. “I don't want to spend time on the technicalities. I want the technicalities to be done with because, at the end, what I'm looking for is that magic moment. So if I'm busy trying to figure out what I'm doing, you miss the magic moment.”
While Muluneh’s work is meticulously planned, it is by no means clinical. Emblazed with story and layers of emotion, the images centre on themes such as the environment, colonisation, health, human rights, African women’s identities and the sordid histories of the past.
No matter how fantastical or surreal a work may appear, Muluneh’s eye and understanding of storytelling places the images within the reach of a global audience.
“There's too much elitism within art; it's always about highbrow things,” she says.
“I come from a farming background. My family are still farmers, but I know when they see my work, they recognise it. And I think that needs to be the role of arts, that regardless of your class, nationality and education, you should be able to look at work and take away something from each show.”
Muluneh has not only worked as an educator for young photographers, but is also the founder of the Addis Foto Fest, the first international photography festival in East Africa, which launched in 2010.
As a cultural entrepreneur, she works on a variety of projects with local and international institutions in Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast, all in an effort to educate and promote photography and art in East Africa and take it across the globe.
“It's about representation, everything is about trying to find that solution of how we proceed,” Muluneh says of her efforts to advocate African art.
“I got into photography out of the frustration over how Africa is perceived, how people of colour are perceived. All of these things I do are connected to each other.”
Muluneh’s work combines many elements and visual languages. Painting, cinematography, fashion photography, digital collage, folklore — her references and ideas masterfully merge, creating a unique yet familiar voice.
“It's never about like seeking validation,” Muluneh says about her creative process. “It’s a way for me to get what's inside of me out. This is a visual journal of my experiences and the things I know, as well as what I want to share with the audience. That's my main priority. And that means knowing your own truth and being truthful with yourself.”
This sharing of experiences goes beyond her work as an artist and is helping to reshape the African art scene.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Muluneh has lived in Yemen, Cyprus, Greece, the UK and Canada, and currently resides in the Ivory Coast — making her well-placed to connect with an international audience.