Extraordinary stories from the most interesting artists, writers, athletes, and thinkers on the kaleidoscope of Muslim experience.

Season two of This Being Human is proudly presented in partnership with TVO.

AÏDA MULUNEH

Season 2

EPISODE 3 - AÏDA MULUNEH

Aïda Muluneh's photographs are almost like paintings, featuring women in majestic outfits and facepaint, set against vivid, stylized backdrops. She talks about developing her artistic voice, the role of spirituality in her work, her series on Islam in Ethiopia, and what she thinks Westerners get wrong about African art.


Aïda Muluneh is the founder of the Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia and the company Desta for Africa Creative Consulting.

ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Welcome to This Being Human…I’m your host Abdul Rehman-Malik. On this podcast from the Aga Khan Museum, I talk to extraordinary people from all over the world whose life, ideas and art are shaped by Muslim culture. 


NADIR NAHDI:

There's a new generation that has a very unique to how they see themselves as young Muslims in the modern world. 


TANYA MUNEERA WILLIAMS:

I am this wide-eyed girl. I'm like, I want it all, I want to experience it all.


GINELLA MASSA:

Everyone has a story. Sometimes you just have to ask and find out what it is.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Like the poem that inspires this podcast, The Guest House, by Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, we’re talking to people who seek meaning and joy in work and life…regardless of what the day brings us. Today, photographer Aïda Muluneh on art, nationhood, and faith.


AÏDA MULUNEH: My ultimate focus from the beginning and why I decided to study cinema, why I decided to study communication has always been growing up in Canada and always hearing, you know, sort of one-sided stories when it came to Ethiopia. And this is when I realized that the power of media and communication is so strong that we need to engage in it in order to sort of change that narrative. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Once you’ve seen Aïda Muluneh’s photography, her style becomes instantly recognizable. 


She creates majestic portraits of Ethiopian women, using vivid colors against clean, stylized backdrops. In one, there’s a face painted white, eyes closed, with a red hand held against its cheek. In another, a woman stands in the clouds, stepping off one red ladder and towards another, frozen in the space between.


It all looks familiar, but not quite of this world. You can feel the future and the past, the real and the imagined, what is and what could be.


Her work has won awards and been featured in major museums, as well as newspapers like the Washington Post. 


Aïda was born in Ethiopia, but left at an early age, only to return as an adult. She has since set up a company to support local artists and started the Addis Foto Fest, the first international photography festival in East Africa. 


She joined me from her home in Addis Ababa.


AÏDA MULUNEH: When I started photography in high school in Calgary, you know, I had this sort of interest in art and painting. But when I discovered the darkroom and my first print, I was like, who needs to spend all this time drawing things when you can actually replicate it within an image? I believe every photographer remembers you know, every photo that they've ever taken, I think is quite impossible not to remember. My first photo was a blossoming flower, a white flower -- that was our first assignment. So I went into what I remember was the botanical gardens in Calgary, and that was also my first print. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIKYou started freelancing as a photojournalist for The Washington Post after college. What does that feel like coming out of college and working for The Washington Post? What was driving you to become to become a photojournalist at that particular moment in the development of your career? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I mean, I entered The Washington Post because of a photographer named Dudley Brooks, who was a staff photographer there. And I think for me, like Washington Post was my bootcamp because it was a very difficult and intense system, because it's highly competitive. It's not like we were getting the most romantic assignments either, you know, since we were the younger photographers that were there. But I remember one of the chief editors used to say, you know, you have to make a decision. He used to say, like, are you an artist or are you a photojournalist? Because over time, my work started shifting into something else and and my argument was like, why can't I do both? Because I felt passionate about both. And even when I teach, you know, I do believe that the foundation of photography is photojournalism, because you first need to be able to tell a story through a collection of images. So, through that, it's been really interesting because I think a few years ago, I had gone back to The Washington Post sort of as a grown up kid, you know, and for them, I think, you know, especially Dudley, you know, I know he's very proud of, you know, all his mentorship where it has led me to. But I think the clear thing that he had told me was that I had finally found my voice and I had finally found my aesthetic that was really personal to me, and it was a way also to express all these things that I wanted to express over the years. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER: The style that Aïda developed is striking. Her photographs are almost like paintings. There are women in elaborate dress with facepaint, against simple backgrounds and patterns. And everything is done in stark, primary colours. 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I focus primarily on four colors, which is red, blue, yellow, white and black. I come from a classical, black and white photographer you know, my mentors were all classical photographers. And then also coming from a photojournalistic world, you know, there's a specific language and that exists within photojournalism. And the one person who sort of led me into this path was the curator Simon Njami, who basically had a project called The Divine Comedies, in which, you know, he selected artists from across Africa and we had to do sort of our interpretation of Dante's Divine comedies. And at that time, I felt a bit insecure as it relates to if I should go back to my black and white or if I should do something new. And then I decided, okay, let me just do this and see, you know, what Simon says about it? It took me, I think, a few years, then it clicked that the reason I migrated towards these primary colors because these were sort of the foundation that I grew up in as it relates to Ethiopian church paintings. So when you look at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a lot of our wall paintings are really based on these strong primary colors, and that has somehow seeped into my subconscious. And it's just after the audience kept asking that I realize, OK, I'm attracted to these colors not because they say just something only to me, but also this was also a reflection of the heritage that I was coming from, which took me a while to realize how that had sort of entered into my mind. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK:  Do you remember that photograph where these colors and that realization came together? Is there, is there a certain picture you could describe for us where in a way, your aesthetic, Aida Muluneh's aesthetic, begins to emerge and makes sense not only to you as the artist, but to us as the viewer? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I think that comes about when I did The World Is Nine collection. And that collection was dedicated to my grandmother, who would always say “the world is nine, she's never a perfect 10.” There's a lot of process that goes into creating my work. So for example, I start with a sketch, then from the sketches, you know, the symbols and the components that I want to add in there. And then the background -- if we're not using an actual location, I actually have artists paint for me the backgrounds, because I've found that when you have a real background, it has a different sort of feeling to the image. Because in the beginning I was photoshopping backgrounds and then I realized, no, let's start painting the background. So right now, what we do is we paint the background and then we go and edit certain things. And I sort of have this belief is I'm trying to perfect the imperfection, so there are small imperfections within the work that I feel moves us into the analog experience as opposed to just a straight digital because my work tends to be very poppish, ya know? But I believe it was when I did, The World is Nine that I just said, OK, I'm just going to focus on these colors because I have so many other things to think about, and I don't want to bombard myself with a full palette. I just want to focus on what I feel passionate about. And I realized red became, you know, the color that I became obsessed with and then blue as well. So in that collection, you'll see this appearance of red and blue. And then with moments of yellow, that enter within that. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You know, you've spoken in other interviews and conversations about the fact that you yourself as an individual are fed by many streams of history and experience ethnic, racial, tribal, linguistic and religious diversity. How do all those things shape your artistic vision and particularly I'm interested in some of the conversations that you've had about the spiritual roots of who you are because you have this incredible intersection of two traditions, don't you? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I mean, yes, I think creativity is a spiritual manifestation. Because I do believe that the act of creation is not something that you can mathematically calculate or, you know, imagination is something that needs to be provoked, and I feel that that comes from a divine place, however you define divinity within your own space. And I even remember this one time there was an interview from, like, I don't know, some sort of publication where the woman was like, "You know, I rarely meet artists who you know, are spiritual or religious." And I said, "Well, you obviously don't know Ethiopians. Whether you choose to be a Christian, Orthodox or a Muslim, you know, religion to us, it's not a practice, it's a culture, and it's a way of life." And you can only understand that when you're in Ethiopia to understand how that correlates. And I come from a family of having both Muslim and Christian family members, so that you will find in the work as well. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You did an incredible series, Aïda, about Islam and Ethiopia, and I think often when we think about Ethiopia, we often don't think about Islam and Muslims, but I reflect on my own upbringing of understanding the history of early Islam, and I can't help but think about Ethiopia. I think about that first migration of the prophet's community from from Mecca, a group of refugees oppressed, downtrodden who come to Ethiopia, Abyssinia, find home in the court of a Christian king, a king who later passes away and in the tradition, the Prophet Mohammed himself, asks this community to mourn and to pray for this incredible personality. I want to ask you about this series because there are some images in that series which move me to tears. Images of devotion, of the elders, of the women in devotion. I looked at it and I stopped because I had to look again because it was my grandmother, you know, with her headscarf on, with her eyes closed. I saw her in your pictures. It's an incredible collection of photographs. I'd love for you to tell us a little bit about the genesis of this and why it was so important to you. 


AÏDA MULUNEH: Well, I must say I'm really surprised you know about that, and I believe this is the first time I've been asked in an interview to talk about this, because it's often overlooked, so I really appreciate that. No, I mean, I did almost a two month road trip in the northern region of Ethiopia, and we spent a lot of time driving on the road. And the one thing that I realized was that obviously the -- I mean, I'm a Christian Orthodox, but I realized that the Orthodox religion in Ethiopia has been documented so much that people don't realize, I mean, Ethiopia -- without sounding like a super promoter -- but you know, it is the land of origins. I mean, when you look at Christianity, Islam and Judaism, I mean, we were there. I mean, we were mentioned in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, in the Quran as well. So in that sense, I felt that no one was approaching it. But I've just always felt that we have to be able to represent what is Ethiopia, which is not just one thing. For example, the region I come from, Wollo, Christians and Muslims inter-marry. And there is, you know, when it's Ramadan, we're with them, when it's like Christmas they're with us, you know, so there's always this interaction and sort of a peaceful coexistence. And I don't know, maybe it's one of the unique places in the world in which this is how we interpret Islam. And even I remember when my grandmother passed, we went to bury her and I remember seeing my uncle, his Muslim friends, that came on their knees into the church to give their sort of, I don't know their blessings. And so there are all these interesting points that I found weren't really fully documented as it relates to Islam in Ethiopia. And I felt that this was something that, it wasn't even for the international world. It was really for Ethiopians to really see that how these things are connected. And that's why I say it's not about religion, it's about spirituality. And I believe if you read all of the ancient texts, I mean, it's all saying the same thing. You know what I'm saying? It's all moving towards the same goal at the end of the day. And I felt that as a photographer, it is necessary to document these things. But I find that in that experience, all the mosques that I've visited, they were very supportive and they were quite…they really opened up things for me that I found, okay, this is a way to shift the perception, because often in Ethiopia, there is this perception that Muslims don't want to have their photos taken. They're not open to it. And here we were, like getting full access to show, okay this is possible, you know, it's not like something that is not possible. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Is there a particular image, Aïda when you look back on that series of images that you and your students took that you kind of go back to and say, this is the kind of the emblematic image? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I have one image, which is the interior of the mosque and which for me, you know, anywhere that I go my ultimate goal and this is what I teach, is that you have to be respectful of people's cultures, you know, don't come with your own ideas of whatever Western system that you have thinking that, you know, it should work, especially when you come into the continent. And I remember at that time, after I had taken, because I did the Friday prayer on the women's section, I sent the students inside to take photos of the men. And when all of it had finished, I remember the imam came up to me and he was like, Is there anything else that you want to take photos of? And I said, Yeah, if it's possible, is there any way that I can get on the roof so that I can take photos of the prayer, uh, what do you call it, the prayer stall? And so he's like, No, no problem. He’s like, come with me. So I followed him. And then I realized that we were going inside the mosque and I told him, Sir, like, I can't go inside the mosque, you know, because like, we're not allowed in. I mean, you know, this is sort of not right. And he's like, Don't worry about it, he said, just come in quickly. And I came in and as I enter, he's like, quickly take photos of all of this. And I was like, Oh my God, all right. So I took photos of everything. And then I went to the roof, took photos also of the roof. And then when I came back out, I remember things, you know, some of the old men watching me come out and I was like, Oh my god, I hope they're not going to say anything to me. So that moment was like defining to me that as a woman, you know, and I always say this, is that in some interviews they ask me, you know, what are the challenges as a woman, ya know, do you face this and that? And I say, you know, really, the limitations is really based on yourself. This is what I believe in, and I realize that you have to keep yourself open to whatever opportunities and without forcing it, because what is meant to be is going to be is going to happen. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: As you're as you're describing these stories, these memories of engaging in these spaces where you yourself know if you could enter into and be part of it, then you all of a sudden you're you're part of them. It's like people are almost in a way without maybe even saying it right, handing over themselves, you know, the images of them, of the places that are sacred to them, of the communities that mean everything to them, into your hands. And in a way, maybe even in an unspoken way, they're saying, we trust you. Take these pictures and we trust that wherever you take them that they will be, they will be seen, they will be developed, they will be displayed and exhibited in a way that we would be happy with. That's a heavy responsibility on the artist, isn't it? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I mean, yes, these are the responsibilities that we have to bear. And honestly, you have to remember being a photographer in Africa, especially being African, it's often very challenging because there's a huge distrust of photography based on just the experiences as it relates to how Africa has been documented, how Ethiopia has been documented. And I think for those of us living in the continent, these are sort of the markers that we're trying to shift because I find that especially when foreign photographers come to Ethiopia, for example, there is no connecting points that are being built with the community. There is no transfer of knowledge, you know? And often, especially if everyone is flying in to document some news and so forth or what have you, I found that things have been one-sided and that's what gets sort of perpetuated within this cliché of what is the media? Of the one-sided story. And so the main challenge for us -- and this is what I teach my students, is that I always tell them, you know, photography, especially in photojournalism, it's 99 percent human relation. It's one percent pressing the button. And what it comes down to is that you have to build trust in people. And I remember I did this workshop in Marcato, which is like, you know, one of the largest open air market in Africa. And I did a two day workshop in there with the students to make them understand how to build trust in the most difficult setting possible. And Marcato is a place where you know nobody wants to talk to you, especially if you're trying to bring in a camera in there like, forget it. And over time, they understood that the human relation is such an important thing because people really look in your eyes, you know, and they're able to see you through your eyes. And there's also a sense or an energy that people also get a feeling for. And to me, this is something that I guess I intuitively have of trying to build connecting points. But also I wanted to help people understand that I'm here to tell the story that wasn't told, and I'm here to show things that weren't shown. And granted, you know there are times where people will come, you know, they will call the police or, you know, the random people will show up and tell you, why are you taking photos of this? And this is why, like in photojournalism, you cannot have an ego. If you come in with a big ego, it's a sure way that you're not going to get the truth out of that moment. So often, you know, when people say, I don't want my photo taken, we're like, OK, you know, there's a million other photos to be taken. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Hearing you speak about your work, hearing you speak about your students and these exciting spaces that are developing that you're helping develop and you're helping establish where photography and this kind of artistic expression is being not only celebrated but presented to the world and is challenging the world. And you've also spoken today about spirituality and how deeply you are moved by the spirit. And I kind of want to know what spirits are you channeling? What messages are you bringing to us from the unseen worlds from our ancestors that it would be important for us to know about and recognize? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I mean, for me, it's, you know, often when the Western world thinks of Africa, they always have these visions of like we've made no contributions to the world, but the birthplace of the first person is Ethiopia. If you look at the complex systems of spiritual beliefs and even, for example, a lot of my research looks at traditional art because I find that these traditional art to be highly sophisticated because there is a sense of purpose to it. And you have to remember it like art is being created in Africa, especially for traditional belief systems, as a form of a spiritual object. Even when you look at the temples in Egypt, they were not built as an exercise of vanity. They were actually built as a space for sort of spirituality in that way. And I come from a country where we have a very ancient history, where there are these spaces, you know, very old structures that you see. And honestly, even when I look at a lot of the work that I create, I'm bringing things from the past and moving it into the future. And this is why even my work is considered almost like Afrofuturism in the sense that I'm taking traditional elements, but bringing it into the contemporary. And I always tell people, you know, Picasso took a lot from Africa, you know, and a lot of people don't know this or they're in denial about it. But you know, a lot of this inspiration came from these traditional arts, which means that what some spaces might call primitive art, it's actually a very sophisticated system which manifested on the foundation of spirituality. So in that sense, this is how I approach my work. And a lot of the research that I do as well, even for the face painting, I find it quite fascinating, you know, the art of body painting and scarification and all these sense of beauty on the body, you know. How art also exists in the physical form within the continents. And unfortunately, as this sort of modernity enters, we're sort of phasing away from these things. I mean, I can honestly tell you when I go to my grandmother's village like my cousins are more connected to the Earth than I am, and they will sense things that I'm not able to sense. So I find that, I don't know, I don't want to say this but as more technology enters, I feel like we're getting more dumber. I don't know this is how I see things. But this is why I think also spirituality is something that we cannot lose sight of, because it is something that's very, you know, it's part of our humanity. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Aïda, that is so fascinating, because, as you've said before, there is almost a pop art element to your work, you know, there's something that is so riveting, contemporary, now. And as you're speaking, now I'm reimagining the work in my head. I'm saying, well, how much of this is pop art, so to speak, and how much of this is just tradition laid bare in a new way, almost in a new medium? That's a remarkable place to sit as an artist, isn't it? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: I mean, I don't know about a place to sit. I only do things that I feel passionate about and that I care for. But you have to remember every piece that I make, I have to feel it within me. And if I don't feel it, then I don't do it. And that's why I say that, that you have to build a connecting point, not just with what you want to say, but what are you making?  And honestly, like, I consider myself very blessed. You know, my work has been accepted, you know, there is different people who are interested in it and so forth. But when I started out, it wasn't really. Like, I wasn't seeking the validation of the audience. I just had things to say that I wanted to say. And I found, you know, this form to be able to express it. And as Africans, I mean, yeah, I speak English in this way. But a lot of the times people forget, like being an African in so many different things, you know, we have complex layers, you know, there's a different interpretation of us. But at the same time, who we are to the core, you know, our roots and our heritage and our cultures are really deeply embedded within us. And these are the things that I want to celebrate because I find that in the continent, when you look at the traditional cultures, it's almost like we're coming to a generation like there's no real value in it or it's kind of like, you know, the choice is towards modernity and I find that the real value is in the traditional because, you know, culture is never stagnant, it's always moving and evolving. And my question always is that how as Africans are we evolving within our own culture? And within that, it's also the conversation of like, how is African culture impacting the global world? So in that sense, you know, it's been a very exciting journey. The funny thing is when I do the work, I mean, there's several processes within it. And then when it's up on a show, first of all, it's very interesting what people see in the image or how they find themselves in the image. I find these to be very fascinating. Everybody has their own interpretation. But I think the great beauty and what I love is when children come to my exhibition, you know, from these school groups. And sometimes you know, I will be present and they don't know it's me and I just sit there and I just listen to what they're attracted to and you know how they see things. And I find this so fascinating. And I feel that for myself as an artist, as a photographer, I want to have an impact in a way that when you go home that you don't forget what you just saw, that it will always be embedded in your head, that I know, okay, at a minimum I've done my job. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Who or what would you like to welcome into your guest house today? 


AÏDA MULUNEH: Anyone that's willing to enter is my theory. And I must tell you, I mean, I'm a big fan of Rumi. There's one poem that I love, which I have on my signature where it says, “Woman is a ray of God. She's not the earthly beloved. She is creative, not created.” 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Aïda Muluneh, it has been such a privilege speaking with you. Thank you so much for being with me on This Being Human.


AÏDA MULUNEH: Thank you very much for this opportunity. It was really a great conversation. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Thanks for listening to This Being Human. You can see some of Aïda Muluneh’s work at Toronto’s Textile Museum of Canada in May 2022. 


You can also find more resources related to this conversation by clicking on the link in the show notes.


This Being Human is produced by Antica Productions in partnership with TVO. 


Our Senior Producer is Kevin Sexton, with production assistance from Dania Ali and Abhi Raheja. Our Executive Producer is Lisa Gabriele. Mixing and sound design by Reza Dahya. Original music by Boombox Sound.


Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica Productions. Katie O’Connor is TVO’s senior producer of podcasts, and Laurie Few is the executive for digital at TVO.


This Being Human is generously supported by the Aga Khan Museum, one of the world’s leading institutions that explores the artistic, intellectual and scientific heritage of Islamic civilizations around the world. For more information about the museum go to www.agakhanmuseum.org 


The Museum wishes to thank Nadir and Shabin Mohamed for their philanthropic support to develop and produce This Being Human.


Aïda Muluneh's photographs are almost like paintings, featuring women in majestic outfits and facepaint, set against vivid, stylized backdrops. She talks about developing her artistic voice, the role of spirituality in her work, her series on Islam in Ethiopia, and what she thinks Westerners get wrong about African art.


Aïda Muluneh is the founder of the Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia and the company Desta for Africa Creative Consulting.

 

In this episode, Aïda talks about:


  • Developing an interest in photography and lessons from her early career 
  • Breaking down her unique style and influences as a photographer 
  • Why she believes creativity is a spiritual manifestation 
  • How her experiences as an Ethiopian directly impact her work and perspective as an artist  
  • The responsibilities of being a culturally respectful photographer 
  • The importance of developing trust with subjects and communities as a foreign photographer 
  • Important lessons she teaches her students
  • Core attributes of a successful photojournalist 
  • False perceptions of Africa and African art perpetuated in the Western world 
  • How technology impedes on our ability to connect spiritually 
  • The value of traditional African art and how she contemporarily reinterprets it 

Quotes:


“Photography, especially in photojournalism, [is] 99% human relation [and] 1% pressing the button.” – Aïda Muluneh, 17:49


“In photojournalism, you cannot have an ego. If you come in with a big ego, it’s a sure way that you’re not going to get the truth out of that moment.” – Aïda Muluneh, 19:01   


“Every piece that I make, I have to feel it within me. And if I don’t feel it, then I don’t do it.” – Aïda Muluneh, 23:21

 

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