DISCONNECTING FROM THE STIGMA OF ETHIOPIA WITH AIDA MULUNEH
Ethiopia remains a country with a stigma attached. Bono and Bob Geldof, tribespeople, violence and famine. And don’t think it’s an association only felt from afar. ‘I remember when I was a teenager I was so ashamed to tell people that I was Ethiopian that I wished I was South African,’ recounts artist Aida Muluneh. ‘The stigma of the ‘starving Ethiopian’ made it impossible for me to have any kind of pride in being Ethiopian.’
Like so many African nations, though, Ethiopia is one of acute juxtapositions. Discord is rarely far from the Horn of Africa — indeed, the country is currently under a state of emergency — but Ethiopian Airlines is the continent’s largest and most profitable airline, earning more than its African rivals combined; its vibrant capital Addis Ababa is a world apart from the conflicted Ogaden region that has been plagued by cycles of war and famine, it is Africa’s fourth-largest city, its diplomatic capital, and a hotbed of culture and creativity.
Sure, Addis Ababa can be a mess at times. But nowhere’s perfect. ‘The world is nine,’ Muluneh’s grandmother would say, ‘it is never complete and it’s never perfect.’ Born here in 1974, Aida Muluneh would leave at an early age, spending a childhood between Yemen and England before settling in Canada and working as a photojournalist for the Washington Post. As her practice moved more into the realm of the art world, though, the photographer found herself gravitating back to her homeland.
It’s nine years since Muluneh returned to Addis Ababa, and her grandmother’s words still ring true, especially of her homecoming, which she describes as ‘a lesson’ — ‘a lesson in humility, and a lesson in what it means to return to a land that was foreign to me.’ Life is a constant quest for idealism, but the perfection we seek is a reality that does not exist. Here in Ethiopia, that is a truth magnified; and the inspiration behind the artist’s bold work that asks questions of the life we all live, ‘as people, as nations, as beings.’
Working with a bold, expressive colour palette and body painting inspired by African traditions, Aida Muluneh creates cinematic scenes that have a hint of the Cindy Sherman to them. They are loud, symbolic works that are, visually, a world away from her photojournalism — austere, frequently monochrome — yet are laced with the same emotions and struggles as the realities she presents in those images. ‘Life is unpredictable and imperfect,’ she explains, and the same can be said of her latest series, The World is 9; inspired by her grandmother’s maxim, it comprises 28 images that move along at a frenetic pace, throwing out the drama of Expressionism, the subconscious of Surrealism, the graphic sensibilities of Pop.
On a dramatic ascendency from commercial photographer to artist, Aida Muluneh’s story does not begin and end with her own practice. Moving back home has been a profound experience, and she is determined to make sure that tomorrow’s teenagers don’t grow up to be ashamed to tell people they are Ethiopian. Curating and developing cultural projects with her initiative DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art) — ‘I’m interested in how we use culture as part of development,’ she tells ARTnews. ‘The work for me is about communication, rebranding my country, and teaching other photographers.’ — Muluneh is also the founder of Addis Foto Fest, a biannual art show that is one of Africa’s most significant international photography festivals.
For Aida Muluneh, there is still a stigma attached to being Ethiopian; she has just found ways to deal with it. She might not wish she was South African any longer, but the artist is still unhappy with the Western stereotypes of her homeland. ‘When people think about Africa right now,’ she continues, ‘they often only think about animals, war, and famine. I’m trying to distort that impression to provoke questions in a different sense.’