Powerful Representations

One in 10 people across the world have no access to clean water near their home. The statistics are even starker in Aïda Muluneh’s (b. 1974) home country of Ethiopia: four in ten live without private taps for drinking and sanitation. The responsibility for transporting this scarce resource often falls on women and children, who walk on average 3.7 miles every day according to Oxfam. In a commission for Wateraid, with support from the H&M Foundation, the photographer began amplifying these realities.

Water Life (2018) depicts lone figures carrying canisters and digging wells in the extraterrestrial salt flats of Dallol, Ethiopia. Their bodies are adorned with vivid clothes and wings – appearing triumphant and empowered. The series cleverly references the conventions of photojournalism, reimagining photographs of social plight from international news cycles to challenge global representation of Africa and the desensitisation of the “foreign gaze.” “I’m at a point in my life and career where I’ve realised my art can have more purpose than just hanging on a white wall in a gallery,” Muluneh told Wateraid. “I want it to convey a message, to transmit an idea to different people regardless of ages, class, race or nationality.”

Later projects tackle other pressing humanitarian issues, such as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in The Crimson Echo (2021). Here, the body is abstracted, repeated and obscured by elements of nature and traditional Ethiopian body ornamentation. The solo show at Efiɛ Gallery, Dubai, echoes other contemporary change-makers in art, from Prince Gyasi (b. 1995) to Ismail Zaidy (b. 1997). A new visual language is taking shape, approaching daily experiences across the continent with authenticity.

Efiɛ Gallery | Until 24 February

Words: Saffron Ward

Image credits:
1. Aida Muluneh, In the Valley of My Shadow, (2021). Photograph. Courtesy the artist and Efie Gallery Dubai
2. Aida Muluneh, Knowing the Way to Tomorrow, (2018). Photograph. Courtesy the artist and Efie Gallery Dubai