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    In conversation with photographer Aïda Muluneh

    Katharina Pfannkuch

    Muluneh reflects on how her homeland of Ethiopia impacts her art

    Depicting African women in surreal, vibrant colours, anyone who has seen Aïda Muluneh’s photographs will certainly recognise them. Her memorable works use a primary-toned palette and are created with ’the woman’s gaze’ in mind. Growing up in Cyprus, Greece, the UK, Yemen, Canada and working as a photojournalist at The Washington Post, the Ethiopian photographer now lives in the Ivory Coast.  

    Aïda Muluneh, you have lived in so many countries – which do you consider your home?

    Ethiopia. That’s where I was born, where I lived for 15 years, and where the inspiration for everything I do lies. Ethiopians are all deeply connected to the history and culture of our country, no matter where in the world we live. It was always important to my mother that I speak our language and understand our culture.

    In the 1970s, you left Ethiopia with your mother, and later, your grandmother inspired the title of your photograph series The World is 9. Why do women take centre stage in your art?

    I choose women to tell my own story. My photographs are visual diaries where I record my experiences, thoughts, and perceptions. In a way, these women serve as a canvas. But, fundamentally, women play an important role in Ethiopian culture and history.

    Is this also the case in photography?

    It’s rather uncommon to see women behind the camera – but not just in Ethiopia. Globally, there are fewer female photographers than male photographers. The fact that I, as a woman, am still behind the camera fills me with a certain pride. It also encourages me in a strange way. Sometimes, being a woman with a camera is underestimated – that is the best position, especially in photojournalism. It provides access to situations that may be closed off to men.

    Is it true that your grandfather encouraged you to pursue a career as a photographer?

    Yes. I only met my grandfather twice. The first time was when I was 16 and still in high school in Canada. At that time, I had just discovered photography and was fascinated by it. It was my grandfather who told me, “If you feel a real passion for it, don’t give up, stick with it.” Unfortunately, he passed away and didn’t witness what I have achieved in the industry.

    What kind of person was he?

    He was in the military, in the air force. He painted and wrote poems; he had a unique sensitivity. I believe it was his way of dealing with the toughness and strictness of his professional environment. He found ways to express himself through his creativity. Those qualities seem to reflect in me. In that sense, he was the catalyst that influenced me and my career.

    Later, you became a photojournalist for The Washington Post. Why did you return to Ethiopia?

    I learned so much about photojournalism at The Washington Post that no school could have taught me. Those years had a significant impact on my visual aesthetics and how I unfold stories. After that, I initially wanted to go back to film-making, a focus of my studies, but I stuck with photography. 

    I noticed how Africa was often portrayed one-dimensionally in the media. It was – and still is – often a suffering image, lacking insight into its complexity. Photography is supposed to be a democratic tool. I find it almost ironic that the documentation of an entire continent often occurs through the eyes of foreigners, even though we live in a time where we consume more images than ever and have access to smartphones and cameras. At the same time, there are restrictions in individual countries when it comes to documenting our realities. 

    So, my challenge as a photographer in Africa is not only due to external influences.

    From a distance, many people tend to have a nostalgic view of their homeland. How was it for you to return to Ethiopia in 2007?

    It taught me a lot – about the past, but also about the present and future of the country. In our culture, there is a music genre called Tizita, which means ‘nostalgia’. That’s one reason why we stay so connected to our homeland and its rich traditions – even those born abroad.

    You have influenced the art scene in Ethiopia and beyond. How did you achieve this?

    After many years in photojournalism, I wanted to do more. I wanted to create my own universe and depict a different reality. One means of doing this was body painting, which has always fascinated me. I experimented with it for the first time for photographs that were exhibited in 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt in the exhibition The Divine Comedy, which was curated by Simone Njami. That’s how I found my visual language.

    Is there such a thing as ‘African photography’?

    That is a similarly absurd term as ‘European photography’. I create works that are an expression of universality without denying my heritage and roots. Both exist in my work and in me, but my
    art is meant to transcend boundaries. It is always about authenticity.

    You now live in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Do you feel homesick?

    My heart may be in Abidjan, but my soul is in Addis Ababa. Between these two places in East and West Africa, there are many differences from the landscape, to the weather and the culture. But both places are unique and offer me very different perspectives. I only feel homesick for simple things. I miss Ethiopian food or spending time with friends and family. But I travel back and forth. Ethiopia is just a flight away and I still have projects in Addis Ababa that I fly back for. 

    Do you always carry something from Ethiopia when you travel?

    My spices, our traditional butter...and, of course, Ethiopian coffee. It’s an essential part of our culture.

    Which Ethiopian artists should the world know?

    The painter, Gebre Kristos Desta. From my perspective, he remains the contemporary artist with the greatest influence on Ethiopian art to this day. His work is truly expressive and it fascinates me deeply.

    Is there a word or proverb in Amharic that you find particularly beautiful?

    Amharic is a very poetic language. Many words are challenging to translate, as too much is lost in the process. There is a poem in which a woman waits for her lover. She stands in the doorway while gazing into the distance waiting for him, but he never returns – and her beautiful eyes melt like snow. It’s very sad, but also very beautiful.

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