Aïda Muluneh was born in Addis Ababa in 1974, the year of the Ethiopian Revolution. She left the country at a young age, growing up between Yemen and England, later spending time in Cyprus, Canada and the USA. Fast forward to 2023, and Muluneh has returned to live and work in Ethiopia’s capital. She is now a photographer, critically acclaimed for a unique visual language that draws on her personal, cross-cultural experiences. Bright colours, body paint and symbolic motifs are hallmarks of her style, appearing in portraits that respond to famous artistic movements including Surrealism, Renaissance painting, West African studio portrait photography, Ethiopian church wall painting and body ornamentation.
Muluneh is the architect of her own landmark cultural moments. In 2019, for example, she became the first Black woman to co-curate the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition. She’s also founder of the Addis Foto Fest, the first international photography festival in East Africa. The event is part of a wider catalogue of entrepreneurial and educational activities run by Muluneh across Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. Crucially, the artist is an advocate of African creativity, championing emerging talent across the continent whilst contributing a valuable perspective to charitable campaigns with WaterAid.
Her vibrant portraits, which often focus on the perspectives of women, can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C., amongst others. Recent projects include This is Where I Am, which took over bus shelters in Abidjan, Boston, Chicago and New York. Like much of her work, it brought allegorical stories into the public realm. Right now, she joins contemporaries Atong Atem, Lebohang Kganye and Maïmouna Guerresi in A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography at Tate Modern, London. The show is dedicated to artists reimagining Africa’s diverse cultures and histories through the lens.
A: Your portraits are instantly recognisable: bold, colourful and surreal. How would you describe your signature style? Did you have a moment when you knew “this is it?”
AM: I started as a photojournalist, and it took me a long time to feel comfortable with colour. Initially, I was passionate about black and white photography, as I found it challenging to see things in colour. For me, it was all about light, shadow and lines. However, when curator Simon Njami asked me to create a collection of work for his exhibition The Divine Comedy at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C., I decided to explore an artistic form that I had experimented with in college. The creation of The 99 Series (2013) – which responded to Dante Alighieri’s 14th century epic poem – marked the beginning of a journey during which I finally found a visual language that allowed me to express what lay within, and to create my own universe.
A: There certain symbols, patterns and colour palettes that recur across each series. Can you give us an example? Where did it come from, and what does it signify?
AM: My inspiration comes from my history and cultural heritage as an Ethiopian. I also look at the various traditional cultures across Africa and Global South. In each piece, the various symbols are codes that elaborate on the messages I want to explore. By way of an example, I often use the Ethiopian coffee pot, or “Jebena,” in my images. Ethiopian culture is deeply embedded in coffee; the country is its birthplace. For me, coffee ceremonies are moments when families get together, community gathers and conversations take place. In this sense, the pot has many different meanings. The significance of symbolic objects in my artworks can change depending on how they are inserted into the composition.
A: The figures in your pictures present, predominantly, as female. Why is this? What do you want to say about the representation of women’s lives and their identities?
AM: I simply share my own experiences and thoughts related to being a woman. Each piece serves as a visual diary, offering an intimate glimpse into my conscious and subconscious selves. You can see this in The World is 9 (2016), which is a response to one of my grandmother’s expressions. She would say: “The world is 9, it is never complete and it’s never perfect.” I thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t until much later as an adult that her voice echoed in my thoughts. Can we live in this world with full contentment? The resulting 28 images explore my questions about life, love and history. The following year I made The Distant Gaze (2017), which looks more broadly – and critically – at the ways in which women have been represented throughout history. It was inspired by images of Ethiopian and Eritrean women documented at the turn of the century by foreign photographers. It was evident that many of these were designed to fulfil the fantasy of the foreign gaze as it relates to the Black female body, becoming postcards for sale in the European market.
A: You have said: “we are in a time in which passivity is not an option.” It is clear that, from your point of view, photography is more than just taking pictures. It’s a tool for advocacy. What sparked your passion for activism?
AM: It is not just a passion for activism, it is a matter of living a life of purpose and meaning. I make my work as a witness of these times and as someone who believes that, if we are to make change happen, we must find ways to be part of that shift. I utilise photography as a tool to advocate for various topics: history, environment, health, modernity and the role of women in society. In the international media, these themes are often documented in ways that are based on a clichéd view of Africa, so we are always consuming images related to stereotypes. But Ethiopia has so much complexity, and I’m witness to that. There are so many subcultures, so many contemporary things happening here, so many cities with interesting people who are trying to make step changes.
A: Water Life demonstrates this. Can you tell us more?
AM: The Water Life (2018) series was made in collaboration with the NGO WaterAid to address the plight of water access as it relates to women’s liberation, sanitation and education. During my work in several Ethiopian regions, I had encountered streams of women travelling on foot, carrying the heavy burden of transporting water. Women spend a great deal of time – collectively more than 200 hours a day – fetching water for the household, which has an adverse effect on their progress and has greater implications for Ethiopia’s future as a nation. I believe that art and artists play a key role in global society as agents of change. We have the power to harness our creativity to shift perceptions and perspectives.
A: Your pictures have been compared not only to West African studio photography, but to surrealist paintings. Where do you feel you fit into the history of portraiture?
AM: I stand on the shoulders of many giants before me and draw a great deal of inspiration from the past. Memory of Hope (2017), for example, draws inspiration from traditional Ethiopian body ornamentation and tattoos. The bold colours and graphic patterns are rich with cultural history and meaning. Here, traditional elements of Ethiopian art are used to create a body of work that addresses the post-colonial experience in Africa and the ongoing ramifications for its local communities and the diaspora globally. I am the extension of all those who have taught me, mentored me, or influenced my work. In this sense, I don’t define where I will sit as it relates to the wider history of portraiture. My focus is on presenting an authentic vision of my vulnerabilities to the world.
A: Tell us about some of your other activities. You’ve established Africa Print House, for example, as well as Africa Foto Fair and Addis Foto Fest, and continue to develop projects with institutions in both Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. Why did you decide to launch these initiatives?
AM: I started Addis Foto Fest in 2010 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Africa Foto Fair in 2022 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. The focus of these events has always been to develop new talent, to present images from across Africa on an international stage and, ultimately, for us to be more competitive in the art market. I set up Africa Print House, meanwhile, to bring standardised international printing to Abidjan. In all my years of teaching, printing has remained a key component of education: students need it to complete their programmes. Furthermore, myself and many photographers on the continent have struggled to access such facilities, which are often limited to a few regions. Africa Print House offers creatives an opportunity to see their works reproduced to the same level of quality as their global peers. In essence, my priority across everything is to set up a base to address the core elements of education, exhibition opportunities and services.
A: Can you describe the creative scene in both countries?
AM: My projects span Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. For me, it was important to connect East and West Africa because of the colonial history that has divided us. I’ve found this to be our greatest barrier. I have had the opportunity to work with photographers in Mali, Senegal, South Africa and the USA, and during his time I have encountered obstacles in language, culture and perception. These factors have obscured our view of the continent’s creative richness. What brings East and West Africa together is the deep roots of our heritage and now a parallel expansion in our contemporary creativity.
A: Addis Foto Fest has been running since 2010, taking place every two years in Abidjan. What has the reception been like so far? Are you planning the next instalment?
AM: The Addis Foto Fest takes place every two years; the first edition was well received with over 7,000 visitors. The next one will be in 2025. Africa Foto Fair, meanwhile, takes place 5 November – 17 December 2023. I am developing an online virtual education programme with portfolio reviews and lectures. In addition, I will continue to showcase in various institutions across the world. I will also be curating exhibitions in Dubai and Milan next year. My book launches in November.
A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography
Tate Modern | Until 14 January
Worlds: Eleanor Sutherland
1.Aïda Muluneh, For All They Care,
The World is 9 Collection, (2016).
2.Aïda Muluneh, Unfilled Promises, Water Life Collection, (2018). Commissioned by WaterAid.
3.Aïda Muluneh, The Amusement at the gate, (2017). The Memory of Hope Collection.
4.Aïda Muluneh, Both Side, (2017). The Memory of Hope Collection.
5.Aïda Muluneh, Fragments Part 1, The World is 9 Collection, (2016).