Aïda Muluneh is an artist, activist and a vocal advocate for contemporary art in her country of Ethiopia and across Africa. Her work addresses the post-colonial experience in Africa and its ongoing ramifications, challenging the stereotyped images of the continent that circulate in the foreign press. Muluneh was born in Ethiopia in 1974 and over the course of her career has subsequently lived in Yemen, England, Cyprus and Canada. She studied filmmaking at Howard University, Washington D.C., and in 2000 began working as a photojournalist for the Washington Post. Muluneh’s work was first exhibited three years later when she was included in the exhibition Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora, 2003, at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington. In 2007 Muluneh moved back to Ethiopia where she established a studio in Addis Ababa. Since that time she has held numerous exhibitions in North America, Europe, and Africa and, in 2018, was included in the prestigious annual exhibition of contemporary photography mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Having moved away from her earlier documentary practice, Muluneh’s photographs draw heavily on studio photographs made in Addis Ababa in the 1930s and ’40s and aspects of traditional Ethiopian art and culture as inspiration. This is most apparent in her use of bright primary colours with her palette referencing the brilliantly hued wall paintings that are found in churches in Ethiopia. Similarly, Muluneh’s use of elaborate face and body painting is drawn directly from her research into traditional tattooing and body adornment customs. She celebrates this sophisticated practice and actively draws attention to this long overlooked and underestimated facet of Ethiopian art. Muluneh sees this as direct consequence of the colonial history of the country stating, ‘Unfortunately, Eurocentric history has dismissed this art as primitive. But, in fact, specific colours, lines and designs have different meanings.’ In her 2017 photograph, Amusement at the gate, Muluneh has used these traditional elements of Ethiopian art to create a body of work that addresses contemporary issues faced by African communities. In this work a woman is shown serving coffee from a traditional Ethiopian pot called a jebena; on the wall behind her a shadow doppelganger appears to be serving a guest but is, of course, pouring nothing into her cup. For Muluneh this image is a metaphor for the conundrum faced by many international aid organisations and the beneficiaries of their activities as, in her view, ‘Often aid in Africa has become a trend that limits our ability to be self-sustainable. Many NGOs work with the idea of helping us but in reality they are only helping themselves with their high wages, expensive cars and villa houses.’ She goes on to say, ‘What we need to do to move Africa forward is not handouts but opportunities in developing entrepreneurs and also a better education system that [will] help us find better solutions to our problems.’ For Muluneh the personal is political and she uses her photography to create images that celebrate Ethiopian culture while at the same time drawing attention to the experiences of people across Africa in the wake of the colonial histories of the continent.
Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria