Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Aïda left the country at a young age and spent an itinerant childhood between Yemen and England. After several years in a boarding school in Cyprus, she finally settled in Canada in 1985. After studying film at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she went on to work as a freelance photographer for The Washington Post. Then in 2003, Aïda was chosen to be part of the groundbreaking show “Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Later that same year, she made an appearance on “Imágenes Havana” a group photography exhibition in Havana, Cuba – the same fortuitous encounter that led to “The Unhealing Wound.” A documentary that explores her own stated fascination about her own identity and also with “how much cultural retention is possible without, necessarily, cultural interaction.” She is the 2007 recipient of the European Union Prize in the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, in Bamako, Mali. As well as the 2010 winner of the CRAF International Award of Photography in Spilimbergo, Italy. She is currently the Director of the Modern Art Museum/ Gebre Kristos Desta Center inside the Addis Ababa University and also the director/curator of the first international photography festival the Addis Foto Fest. She is also the director and founder of Desta for Africa Creative Consulting (DFA), a creative production company, which provides creative consulting, photography services and cultural event planning. Addis Standard interviewed Aïda on her work here in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
Photo Caption: Aïda Muluneh’s, 99 Series, a collection of seven photographs, were part of the “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst. It was curated by Simon Njami, and was running from 21 March – 27 July 2014, in Frankfurt/Main. Please see our interview with the award winning photographer Aïda on her works here in Ethiopia.
Addis Standard – You left Ethiopia at an early age, and made many countries in the world your home; you had a successful career as a freelance photographer for Washington Post, among others; and yet you came back. Why?
Aïda Muluneh – I had always wanted to come back to Ethiopia but it wasn’t until 2007 [during] my second visit to Addis Abeba that I realized I would have to stay longer than a short vacation. Most of my creative work was always dealing with Ethiopia and it only made sense that in order to fully understand my birthplace I would also have to live here. It has been challenging but I must say it has also been the most creative and productive time of my professional career. Being back for the past eight years, it has taught me a great deal about my country, its people and complexities of our society. In short, it has been inspirational.
You wrote to your fans, “living and working in Addis Abeba after having spent most of my life abroad has its challenges but it also gives me insight on the many possibilities of doing business in Ethiopia.” Have you ever thought your decision to come to Ethiopia was, well, perhaps not the right decision?
As many people know, I have a strong personality and once I have set my mind to purse a goal, I don’t look back but rather I move forward. One thing that I tell young people here is that challenges are everywhere and not limited to Ethiopia. The testament to ones strength is determined on what we choose to do with the challenges that we face. The longer that I live here it becomes clear that the future is Africa and as it relates to Ethiopia we have a long road ahead but we are on our way.
When you first established Desta for Africa Creative Consulting (DFA) you had a huge mission to bridge the gap in “photography training in Ethiopia”, but slowly moved into an even bigger mission to do “creative production company.” Did you move into this because you have addressed your initial mission of bridging the gap?
We still offer photography workshops on a yearly base and the core values of DFA still remains the same, we have just expanded to offer more services based on the demands of the market.
Some of your collection of images can be found in “ermanent collections in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the Museum of Biblical Art in the United State,”when you reach to such a point whereby your works represent your home country, what part of your country do your images represent most? Is it the culture, the tradition, the rural/urban life?
I represent a contemporary outlook as it relates to my country/continent and as an artist I am using my art as a form of self-expression on what I encounter in my daily life and also my past experiences.
You were the lead photographer for the recently published book, Temsalet, which included the life story of 60 extraordinary Ethiopian women. If I can ask you to tell me the one thing that touched you deep while photographing these women, what would that be?
I learnt a great deal about the history of Ethiopia through these women and more importantly their great contribution to the development of our country. Having traveled to so many different places to document the women, it was clear for me that the strength of women is immense and if we are to be victories in defeating poverty in Ethiopia it can only happen with the involvement of our women.
The third Addis Foto Fest will be held in the first week of Dec. and some 90 photographers from 36 countries are expected to take part in the project. As someone who is the mastermind of Addis Foto Fest, how do you reflect on the journey the festival has taken since its beginning in 2010? What are the challenges and success stories?
The Addis Foto Fest has been a great event to see come to life and it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our partners and also team members. It has been a life lesson for me and coming from a film background, it often reminds me of working on a film production with a large team to make one’s vision a reality. Through this experience, I have had the opportunity to showcase great talents from across the world but also more importantly to discover emerging talents here in Ethiopia. It has been very exciting to see so many of our young photographers producing some amazing new works and very much looking forward to showcasing them in the Addis Foto Fest this coming December.
What’s next for DFA and Aïda Muluneh?
The next step for DFA is to work across Africa and to continue being curious, creative and innovative.
Cover Photo: Portrait Photo of Aïda Muluneh by Samuel Taye