A woman stands in front of a rusting security grille. She wears a dramatic red cape and her head is framed by a halo of black hair. Her face is painted white and a line of black dots stretches from the top of her forehead to the base of her neck, which are inspired by traditional African body art.

Finding truth and building bridges

How do we come to terms with the dualities of being that exist within us? This is just one question of many that Canon Ambassador and contemporary artist Aïda Muluneh explores within her work. 2016’s Conversation from the series ‘The World is 9’ shifted her thought processes, allowing Aïda to discover new truths and purpose through her work and photography. Here, she speaks powerfully about the masks we wear and the way in which images can create social change.

“I've always been obsessed with images. Growing up as an immigrant in Canada, kids asked me where I was from and when I mentioned Ethiopia, they would envision people starving and animals roaming around. It was then I understood that people have these images engraved in their minds. I wanted to change this perception about my country and also how African immigrants were perceived in Canada. Therefore, my passion for being an advocate for change started at an early age when my mother would have me volunteering in community centres, so I've always had this whole thing of helping and that's led me to where I am now. It's not an easy path. I often tell my students that if you are becoming a photographer because you want to be rich and famous, you will not achieve your goals, because in any art form, you have to be prepared to make rejection your best friend. Being a photographer is often about persistence and finding your truth. Within art, I believe creation is the purest form of truth. 

My grandmother always said that the world is never perfect – it's a nine. We aspire towards getting close to ten, but never reach perfection. All the pieces in The World is 9 are connected. For me, this was about this duality that I exist in – between the past and the present, between Western and traditional cultures, between being from the west and also being very Ethiopian. I felt like we all have these dualities that we need to come to terms with within ourselves, but also how that relates to the world outside us. Most of my work is my thinking process and a way for me to express what I have to say. There are conversations that I want to have, questions I have in my mind. Not necessarily to offer an answer but to provoke thought.

A woman stands in front of a rusting security grille. She wears a dramatic red cape, which covers her from the neck down, and her head is framed by a halo of black hair. Her face is painted white and a line of black dots stretches from the top of her forehead to the base of her neck, which are inspired by traditional African body art.
Conversation from ‘The World is 9’. © Aïda Muluneh

This image was taken at the Legehar train station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which once connected Addis Ababa with Djibouti. The old station is no longer functional and a new line was built a few years ago, but I always found it to be interesting and decided to do several pieces for The World is 9 there. This was one of the earlier shots and, when you look at the colours and layout, the image is all done with natural light. When I started in photojournalism, I was very uncomfortable with colour photography. I came from the darkroom, not from the digital generation, and black and white always spoke to me. In my journalism and experience at the Washington Post, it was challenging to move from black and white to colour, even to this day my heart is in black and white. This is why I focus on primary colours because I wanted to take a step-by-step approach to colour. However, I realised over time that I was subconsciously pulling in from the Ethiopian church paintings I had seen during childhood, which are based on primary colours. Every year something unfolds, and I discover new things that I didn't see before. It's an interesting part of the artistic journey. So, when we talk about truth and finding purpose, those have to be aligned, because in the end, why are you doing it? My primary goal is to create work that is a connecting point to anyone that sees it, something that creates different reactions. That means that I've done my job. 

I began painting faces when I was at Howard University. There was a fashion show and they asked for a campaign image. At the end of the day, I'm an African – even though I speak English and live in the West – so I decided with the makeup artists to paint the face black and put white dots. I felt like this was my way of adding Africa in and the work ended up being exhibited and part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian. I focus my work on these masks because I feel like everybody has a mask, your mask of insecurities, the mask of ego or whatever it is. But it's when we remove that mask that we reveal who we each are. The idea of these masks is also to create this connecting point within our own humanity. We live in a world where the colour of your skin is the key thing. I find it to be quite strange that we're still talking about this in this day and age, so the mask has many metaphors within it. I don't want features that look super European or African, simply just a person. Yes, I'm an African woman making these stories within each frame, but what I'm trying to connect with the audience is that we have more similarities than differences. It's about creating, connecting and building bridges through human experience.

On the right, a portrait of smiling Aïda Muluneh learning on table and smiling by Moustafa Cheaiteli. On the left, a quote that reads ““We have more similarities than differences. It's about creating, connecting and building bridges through human experience.”
Aïda Muluneh © Moustafa Cheaiteli

As it relates to my advocacy work in promoting the image of Africa to the world, I often say that I don't come from an Art History background; I simply saw that there was a need in my country to share images from around the world. The first thing I did when I came to Ethiopia was teach because I felt like this was needed, almost to a level of urgency. We can't talk about the misrepresentation of the image of Ethiopia or Africa if we're not actively engaged in making that change. So, I started teaching young artists at the art school, and progressively I realised that it was not just about teaching photographers to engage, but also educating society and looking at the application of the image, especially when we speak about the misrepresentation of Africans. And in that context, I tried to bring new talent to the forefront. I founded DESTA (Developing and Educating Societies through the Arts) and the international photography festival Addis Foto Fest. We have this expression in my country that the success of someone is not about how much money you have in your bank account when you die, but what have you transmitted to the next generation. 

I have seen the perception of contemporary Ethiopia start to change. At the first Addis Foto Fest in 2010, I think I only exhibited four photographers from Ethiopia, whilst at the last edition there were 36. The most magical moment for me is when young people come to the exhibition, and you see them in front of a body of work, just sitting there and looking at it. That's when you realise that this has a much deeper impact. Many of the photographers involved end up receiving grants or getting books published and that's when I realised that the talent is there, but the networking and opportunities are not readily available. But we can build these opportunities within the continent by engaging the global photo community and bringing the community to our doorsteps.

Within this, I started understanding the horizon of photography in Africa. What are the challenges we're facing? Why do things not move from here to there? Why do we have this issue of this representation? Where's the accountability from our governments and institutions? All in all, it has been an enriching experience for me, and what I'm building is really a global family, connecting photographers in the continent with those around the world. The festival is a truly diverse event where people that would normally not connect start realising that the challenge they face here is actually a global challenge for image producers – that the insecurities I have are the same everywhere else. The AFF is about bringing people together and to show the world that in Africa, we are striving to change the stagnant discourse on who we are – not only as a nation but also that we are working towards a better future for the balanced representation of the continent.”

More about Aïda’s work and projects can be found on her website.

Written by Aïda Muluneh and Cecilie Harris