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PHOTOGRAPHY IN A DIVERSE WORLD

Afrofuturism & Aida Muluneh in Addis Ababa

Leah Abraham

It is tempting to think only of sci-fi and space-travel aesthetics when thinking of Afrofuturism. The emergence of the genre in the 70s gave rise to a number of cultural milestones; from Sun-Ra and his historic Arkestra, to cyberpunk in science fiction and comics. More recently, its’ resurgence in pop culture has seen the emergence of more examples of cultural empowerment, from Janelle Monae’s cyberpunk aesthetics, to Beyonce’s Grammy performance, which was teeming with references to deities of African descent. But Afrofuturism comes in many forms.

As a discourse, it can be understood as a re-negotiation of the present and future realities of black communities in regards to politics, culture and visual arts. Within the framework of contemporary black cultural production, there has been a resurgence of visual artists, photographers and filmmakers using Afrofuturism as a tool to empower African identities and their diasporic communities. In the case of the transnational African the process of re-imagining cultural ties to Africa is even more necessary. “It’s not just a matter of “exploring the past, but at the same time looking at the future,” explains Muluneh. The genre becomes a facilitator in creating work that connects to homeland, but also is able to voice the cross-culturalist perspective that comes from living in many places.

Peripatetic visual artist Muluneh’s technicolour images are a voyage for the eyes. Highly saturated and imbued with poetic sentimentality, their ultra-vivid imagery commands attention. Muluneh’s photographic series, “The World is 9” is the artistic culmination of 9 years of living in Ethiopia, which Muluneh describes as ‘a lesson in humility, and a lesson in what it means to return to a land that was foreign to me.’

Her images can be read as a personal and collective memory of Ethiopia, 

 

giving life to a cultural nostalgia as described and symbolised in Tizita/Nostalgia. (See header image) 

Her stark colour-blocking and theatrical manifestations of her experiences fill her work with a rich culture and history, one that starkly contrasts with the war-torn Ethiopia often portrayed in the media. The 28 images centralise women as the blank canvas for projecting realities in transit, resulting in captivating, dignified portraiture that is often timeless and surreal.

“For me, visual communication plays a significant role in photography, in my opinion, photography is not just hanging on a museum wall or seen in a magazine, it’s actually a powerful tool that disseminates information, that documents history and can have influence”.

“Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male…” Kenyan/American artist and contemporary, Wangechi Mutu, a fellow diasporic artist, remarked on the prevalence of female forms in her own sculpture and multimedia work. Much like Mutu, Aida Muluneh enlists Ethiopian women,

female artists to carry the symbols and meanings of national identity and culture that she makes visible.

“There are specific symbols and codings, that are a combination of different ethnic groups that we have in Ethiopia.” Projecting the Ethiopian woman as the carrier of cultural-specific signifiers, the carriers of culture and the possibilities of a global future, Muluneh harks back to the notion that women carry and preserve history: “I am trying to show that there is hope, that there are those of us that are contributing to the change, that it’s not just waiting for a Westerner or somebody foreign to come and save us…”

In the Past, the Present and the Future, Muluneh is predominently occupied with a past intricately connected to the future. In so doing Muluneh creates a vantage point for education and cultural development in Ethiopia, an invitation for the country to look within itself for its future of development.

Muluneh is also the Founder of Addis Photo Fest, the first International Photography festival in East Africa and continues to educate, curate and develop cultural projects with local and international institutions through her company DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art). Much of Muluneh’s production addresses her personal process of reclaiming heritage and also explore her feelings of distance to the very same heritage. 

 

As her images depict a liminality of time and space, she is better able to articulate her transnational experiences of migration and culture: “Ethiopia gave birth to me, but it’s really the world that raised me.”

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