Anxiety and Nostalgia: The Art of Aida Muluneh

We exist between the anxiety of the unknown future and the nostalgia of the familiar past. We bear the burden of our duality.”

Aida Muluneh two part photographic portrait

Photographer Aida Muluneh has spent most of her life without a place to call home. At a young age she left Ethiopia with her mother, settling for short amounts of time in Yemen, England, Cyprus and Canada – a nomadic life that left her yearning for a country she barely remembered. Her imagination was fueled by her mother’s stories of their homeland, and like most stories, this vision of the land was part fact and part fiction. She found herself balanced between a barely remembered past and a hard to imagine future.

In high school she was exposed to the art of photography, eventually becoming a photojournalist and working professionally for groups such as the Washington Post. Of this time she says, “I began questioning depictions of Africans and African Americans in the mass media. It dawned on me how the supposedly neutral form of photography was a tool that had helped perpetuate stereotypical images of black people globally and erased a complex past and future.

Aida Muluneh photographic portrait with basket imagery

Muluneh began to investigate traditional art forms, especially ones native to Ethiopia such as face painting, masks, fabric printing, and basketry. These have become a core part of her photographs. The primary colors and shapes she employs mimic tribal markings. Her works merge the contemporary and the traditional, creating a hybrid form. She states that this is part of “my belief that as Africans we must be part of the creation of images that tell the story of a continent in transition between past, present and future through our own authentic voices and lenses.

Aida Muluneh photographic portraits with black and white drawn background

A decade ago Muluneh moved back to Ethiopia, where she had to reconcile the reality of the country with the fantasy she constructed while in exile. Since her return she has become socially active, working as the founder of an African photography expo and as the managing director of DESTA – Developing and Educating Society Through Art for Africa.

Aida Muluneh photographic portrait with blue face painting

The form of Muluneh’s photographs is rooted in tradition and a specific history but it also resonates across culture boundaries. Working mainly with primary colors and basic shapes she makes powerful images. I encourage you to look at these photographs through the lens of the elements and principles of design. Notice how she uses positive/negative shape relationships, color, line, balance, and pattern. There is a simplicity and straightforwardness to their use that heightens the effectiveness of these design components. 

Aida Muluneh portrait based on the grid

Aida Muluneh photograph of woman lying on ground in billowing red garmentAida Muluneh photographic portrait in staged environment


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