Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh has lived the majority of her life in the Northern Hemisphere. Having left Ethiopia at a young age, Muluneh spent her early years bouncing between Yemen, England, and Cyprus before moving to Canada and later the United States, where she took up a position as a photojournalist for the Washington Post. Muluneh developed her skills as a documentary photographer at the Post, but found herself gravitating toward a more artistic mode of expression as she simultaneously nurtured a growing desire to reconnect with the land of her birth.
Nine years ago, Muluneh moved back to Ethiopia to satisfy both urges. She has since created several exhibitions’ worth of work and founded the Addis Foto Fest, Ethiopia’s first biennial exhibition of photography from around the world. Muluneh also established DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art), a cultural development organization that runs workshops, exhibitions, and creative exchanges.
Muluneh described her return to Ethiopia, in a statement, as “a lesson in humility, and what it means to return to a land that was foreign to me.” For her latest solo show, “The World is Nine,” on view through April 16 at David Krut Projects in New York, Muluneh further expounds upon the insights she gained from repatriation, borrowing the show’s title from an expression her grandmother often used: “The world is 9; it’s never complete and it’s never perfect.”
The title’s origin also mirrors the sense of reflexivity present in the exhibition. “Some of these images are like a personal diary,” Muluneh said of her series of vivid, almost surrealistic portraiture. That isn’t to say the works are autobiographical, however. Muluneh describes this show as a “symbolic” attempt to delve into the many layers of her uniquely multifaceted diasporic culture, and through that complicate both her and our own ideas about how we live “as people, as nations, as beings.”
In our conversation below, which has been lightly edited and condensed, Muluneh discusses the significance of these themes in her photographs as well as the motivations behind their creation.
ARTnews: What draws you to such bold color palettes in your photography?
Aida Muluneh: Subconsciously, it probably has to do with the fact that I tend to be an aggressive person, and I like extremities. When I do something, I do it passionately. I want a passionate color—something that’s both beautiful and disturbing at the same time, like a car accident you can’t help but look at. When I did a show in Paris, somebody said my work had a Pop element to it, which was something I hadn’t considered before.
What sort of reaction would you say you are trying to provoke?
I’m trying to make art digestible, no matter whether you’re a bourgeois blah blah or someone from any other spectrum of society. I also want to make Africa digestible in a different way. When people think about Africa right now, they often only think about animals, war, and famine. I’m trying to distort that impression to provoke questions in a different sense.
You’ve mentioned before that your focus is on “capturing light.” What exactly does that process entail?
I start with an idea—a poem, or what have you—and I sketch it out. From that sketch, I have fashion designers make the clothes for that image. The shooting process feels like a film script. That’s how I see these painted faces—as different characters void of nationality and ethnicity, like blank slates. The sentiment behind the images are supposed to be things that exist within all of us regardless of where we come from. So, when I talk about capturing light, it’s not just about the physical light that comes into the room, but about a sense of enlightenment as well. That’s what I’m trying to show with my work.
In your exhibition catalogue, there’s a wonderful essay by the poet Lemn Sissay. One line in particular stood out for me: “Our homelands are inside of us, and when we return a more truthful experience emerges.” Would you say that’s happened to you since you moved back to Ethiopia?
It’s about inspiration. In that sense, if you’re drinking a [country’s] water and breathing its air, that will have an impact in itself. The validation came for me when I realized I had to stop fantasizing about my birthland of Ethiopia without being inside of it. As Ethiopians, we tend to be very nostalgic people. I see that creeping into Ethiopian artwork, which is why I wanted to understand [Ethiopia] from the inside.
What prompted you to permanently move back to Addis Ababa and create art?
I came back to Addis in 2007 to work on a documentary for three months. When I got here, I realized this place was too dynamic to be fantasizing about from somewhere else, so I left my life in Canada. My participation in this conversation is much more than the work you see hanging on the wall; it’s about the advocacy of cultural ownership. Africa is so rich in culture, and I don’t mean only in terms of food and fashion. I’m talking about the element of beauty.
How does that sentiment relate to your work with DESTA?
I’m interested in how we use culture as part of development. The activities we do through DESTA are meant to engage society, but also, because we’re a business, we try to find sustainable solutions that show it’s possible to create work through culture. On many levels, social entrepreneurship must be encouraged, as it’s way more beneficial than any NGO. The work for me is about communication, rebranding my country, and teaching other photographers.