As a prominent photojournalist, Aida Muluneh often finds that the subject matter she explores for media outlets motivates her artistic work. Her portraits derive from a keen understanding of the way images play an essential role in how the world views people; as an Ethiopian woman, she is invested in correcting misrepresentations of her home country abroad. Muluneh left Ethiopia at a young age and experienced an itinerant childhood before settling in Calgary—where she was first introduced to photography in high school. She later studied film and communications in Washington, D.C., then eventually returned to the land of her birth. Muluneh’s work is motivated by breaking patterns of political passivity: “We have an obligation to document and share with the world the other side of the story, instead of the one that we see through the foreign gaze.”
Muluneh’s vividly coloured, highly symbolic portraits respond to human rights tragedies, particularly the hardships of poverty, migration, racism, and colonialism, and the extent to which hope still exists in the face of these struggles. The Return of a Departure (2017) looks to the history of Africans who died in the transatlantic slave trade, and The Mirage of Hope (2017) recognizes those suffering in Libya’s present-day slavery situation. Each image employs costuming, sets, and make-up inspired by body decoration and craft forms from Ethiopia and other global traditional cultures. Drawing from four interrelated bodies of work, ten of her large-scale portraits are positioned in the ponds of the Aga Khan Park, corresponding to its four-part design, which is based on a traditional Persian and Mughal chahar bagh (four-part garden).
Muluneh’s work asks provocative questions about life’s unpredictability and our role within it. An expression that her grandmother used to repeat is a touchstone for her work: “The world is nine, it is never complete and never perfect.” Ethiopia is the only African nation that maintains its independence from Europe, having defeated colonial invasion twice. Muluneh’s Strength in Honour (2016) is representative of her desire to celebrate this heritage, and looks to depictions of Africans in the 1950s and 1960s that showcased the elegance and prestige of its people, in contrast to contemporary images of war and famine. Her imagery also acknowledges histories of conflict: Lest We Remember (2017) draws attention to the world’s collective amnesia when it comes to the destructiveness of war. Her portrait blends multiple wartime symbols, including the poppy flower to represent the world wars, black-and-white stripes symbolizing the Japanese flag in the second world war, and a hat in reference to the Vietnam War. Muluneh notes: “We are the witnesses who stand at the side of the road, shackled by our comforts and also our conformities. We are the consumers of the pain of others and we are also the supporters of a distorted future.”
Seed of the Soul (2017) explores the challenges that Black women face living in America. Although this portrait specifically references the story of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, one of the first young African-Americans to be integrated into an all-white school—the tomatoes that were thrown at her are symbolized by a background of red dots—the piece considers the strength of girls and women around the world who fight daily injustice in their communities. Historical mistreatment of unnamed women is addressed in The Sacred Memory of the Divine (2017), inspired by archival images that the artist found of Ethiopian women photographed nude by foreign photographers to promote Eurocentric ideology and supremacy.
Set within the context of the Aga Khan Park, Muluneh’s images gain particular resonance. The Aga Khan Museum, positioned at one end of the park, is dedicated to the arts of Muslim civilizations worldwide, and is mandated to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of its contribution to world heritage. Muluneh’s portraits stand as a series of monuments to both the struggles and achievements of her compatriots and the African diaspora across history and in the present moment.
Presented in Partnership with the Aga Khan Museum
Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein