A Photographer Focuses on Her African Roots — and the Continent’s Future

A Photographer Focuses on Her African Roots — and the Continent’s Future

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics, business and more.

Aida Muluneh is an Ethiopian-born photographer based in Ivory Coast whose focus and inspiration come from her African roots.

A graduate of Howard University, she was a freelance photographer for The Washington Post from 2001 to 2002, working in Washington, D.C., and also in Ethiopia. In 2010, she founded the Addis Foto Fest, the first international photography festival in East Africa. Last year she launched the Africa Foto Fair, a virtual magazine and festival running through March 26 that use images to serve as “a platform to connect Africa to the world and the world to Africa.”

This month the Public Art Fund, a nonprofit group that brings contemporary art to public spaces in New York and elsewhere, is displaying 12 of her photos on bus shelters in New York, Boston, Chicago and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the first time the fund has presented artwork in Africa.

Ms. Muluneh, 48, recently discussed her career, philosophy and goals in email exchanges from Ivory Coast. The interview has been edited and condensed.

When and why did you become interested in photography and start practicing it?

I started when I was 16 in high school and became interested in it because, as an immigrant living in Canada, I realized that the international media coverage of my country was often one-sided or didn’t offer the full perspective of our realities.

Do you consider yourself a photojournalist or a fine-art photographer?

I am both; one inspires the other.

How do your Ethiopian roots inspire your photography and how are they depicted in it?

My work is a visual diary of my experiences in my country and abroad. With this said, I am heavily inspired by my culture and our stories. Each image has its own coding with messages specifically aimed at my Ethiopian audience. The colors I use, symbols and objects I use on my sets are expressions that I bring together from Ethiopian spirituality and culture.

You told the Financial Times recently that you believe there is a surge in photography because of social media. What is the connection between the two and how did the Addis Foto Fest and Africa Foto Fair grow out of these phenomena?

Better access — through internet, mobile phones and other virtual means — has allowed artists in Africa to take control of their own careers and art forms, rather than being left at the mercy of art-world gatekeepers.

Considering this is the age of information, it is only relevant that as Africans we are in the forefront to also provide our perspective and creations through technology and various platforms.

Virtual platforms and connectivity have been the most important tools for the global community to use to engage with the festivals I have produced. They also help us build an international community of image-makers.

What are your goals and future plans for Africa Foto Fair?

An Africa Foto Fair exhibition will start touring to different countries in Africa, especially in West Africa, in 2024, while the fair’s online platform will continue sharing various podcast conversations offering different perspectives of photographers from Africa and beyond.

My goal is to have both a physical and virtual existence that promotes, educates and sells the works of photographers from Africa.

How did your Public Art Fund exhibition come about?

I was approached by Katerina Stathopoulou, adjunct curator of the fund, to make a body of work. I have always been a fan of public art installations, since they are the best way to engage the public that might not necessarily visit galleries or museums — in a sense, bringing the art to the people.

What are you trying to illustrate with your Public Art Fund works?

My practice focuses on my cultural heritage as a way to explore themes of history, politics, sense of place and other pressing issues such as the climate crisis. I drew inspiration from the Ethiopian poet Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin’s “This is where I am.”

Written in 1974 — the year that marked both my birth and the start of the Ethiopian Revolution — the poem and my resulting body of photographs are markedly personal.

The series bridges past and present, examining my experiences as an immigrant and Ethiopian woman. It explores the various political regimes I’ve lived through and borrows visual language from religious iconography.

In a recent interview, you said you are trying to advocate for the future of Africa, as opposed to always looking to the past. Why is this goal important and how are you trying to achieve it?

I believe that strengthening the development of communication tools is a key factor in promoting the future of Africa. We must negotiate the past to have a better understanding of the direction we are moving toward.

With that in mind, the creative sector has played a key role in showing the world the complexities of our continent; it has also shared our stories with our own communities through contemporary forms of expression.

Artists are the witnesses and keepers of our history; they also use creativity to show another side of our realities. The future of Africa is now.

In the same interview, you said the challenges of Black people are a global phenomenon. How are you trying to further and encourage global conversation about these challenges and explore the diversity of the continent?

Unfortunately, outdated perspectives still exist when we are speaking about the challenges of Africans and those in the diaspora; these outdated views have been spread through one-sided stories and images. Since 2008, I have been teaching a new generation of image makers in Africa, first through the establishment of Addis Foto Fest and then Africa Foto Fair, steps toward offering the global audience a different view as it relates to our visual language and stories.

Beyond the Public Art Fund display and a contemporary African photography exhibition at the Tate Modern this summer, what’s next?

Besides showcasing my work in different festivals and spaces, my primary focus has been to further develop Africa Print House in Abidjan, which is a professional photography printing service that addresses the need for better quality printing in Africa.

Considering that printing is an integral part of promoting photographers in various markets and to collectors, the printing facility is an extension of Africa Foto Fair, in which we are developing a platform that also offers prints for sale to the global audience.

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