It’s time now for Africans to present their own realities!

Interview with Aïda Muluneh

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In spite of having widely exhibited in the Anglo-Saxon world, and in particular at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, the Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh was one of the wonderful surprises of the last Bamako Photography Encounters. Moreover, she has won the UE price for the best press photographers.

Aida, can you tell us about your photography background?
I have always photographed my family but I didn’t officially get into the darkroom until I was in high school. I use to be into sports when I was in high school but, for some reason, one year I just decided to drop it all for photography. We had one art teacher with a run-down darkroom, but I think my passion for photography started when I developed my first print. I have had some great mentors in my photo lifetime; I mostly learnt from them.
Let’s talk about the work you showed in Bamako.
The work was a collection of images from Ethiopia. It was black and white, ten prints. Most of the images are of the day-to-day life in my country.
What is the context of photography in Ethiopia?
I would have to say that we still need training, but not training in skills: training of the mind.
There is a great pool of talent here but, due to the lack of adequate training, the state has been comprised mostly of wedding and portrait photographers. There are schools that teach photography but they mostly teach wedding photography and so forth. That is why it is important to me that I continue my work to share my knowledge base in Ethiopia. I am currently organizing mini workshops with two other photographers at the Addis Ababa University Art school.
Have you already shown your work in Ethiopia?
I did my first show in Ethiopia just a few weeks ago at LeLa Gallery (editor’s note: in January).
It was a group show.
Can you talk about your experience in Bamako during the festival? Before having exhibited this year, had you already heard about it?
I came across the Bamako festival by accident when I was searching for African photographers. I was surprised that they hadn’t featured Ethiopian photographers in the past, so I decided to submit some of my images. I must say that the Bamako show was probably the most important of my career. I have spent most of my artistic life thinking that there wasn’t anyone else around who could possibly understand the struggles that African photographers face in North America. It was the most rewarding experience in the sense that I was surrounded by the most talented and amazing photographers that Africa has to offer. It was an honour to even be amongst them.
So, discovering the Bamako festival has made you feel less « alone »?
Without a doubt. I met African photographers who have lived abroad like me but who still have the same mission and passion for Africa.
… « The struggles that African photographers face in North America », can you please develop this point?
It’s just not African photographers that face these obstacles, it is also African-American photographers. I have been told that my portfolio has too many « black people » in it and so forth. I’ve lived in New York, which is a very difficult market to work in or penetrate.
This is why I am in Ethiopia now and rebasing myself back in my country. There is so much to do and so much inspiration.
I wonder whether your organisation, DESTA, was created in this sense?
I developed DESTA as a project that offers various artists from the diaspora and the continent a chance to exchange ideas and present their vision.
What kind of initiatives are concretely developed by your organisation?
Currently, we are working with Addis Ababa University Art School in Ethiopia by offering photography workshops to the art students. Our goal is to eventually make the workshops part of the school’s program. This is a big step because, in Ethiopia, photography isn’t really considered an art. Therefore, most of the photographers in the country are primarily event photographers.
Can you tell us more about the workshops that you’ve been leading?
Regarding the teaching in Africa, I have come to realize that Africans need more opportunities for long-term education in photography. What we have done in Ethiopia is to set up a year-long workshop with students from the Addis Ababa University`s department of fine art. As you may know, African-American photographers and other Africans in the Diaspora have been at the forefront of photography. They are an important resource in expanding and promoting images of Africa and also creating a link between those in the continent and those abroad. Grant money and equipment is the biggest challenge but thus far we have had the support of the United States Embassy and the French Embassy in Ethiopia. Through the D.E.S.T.A for Africa NGO, my mission in the next three years is to bring in these photographers and also utilize local photographers for long-term workshops. I am also working on a proposal that will give well-established photographers in Africa a chance to teach to young artists. For the moment, this program will be in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, and obviously Ethiopia. The classes have to be small due to equipment issues, but the plan is to have rotating classes in these various regions. The one resource that we have not tapped in Ethiopia, and I can safely say in other parts of Africa, is the use of corporations to invest in these types of community-building activities. Major corporations have a responsibility to do this because, after all, they are taking from Africa and not giving back. I know that with all the problems that Africa faces, people might question why photography is important. Well, for me, Africa is in need of a new stock of images. The mass media has failed to offer a balanced view of Africa and I know that it is time now that Africans present their own realities from their perspectives. We are not denying the negative, we just want to show that, just like in the rest of the world, Africa has another side.
Do you work on digital or analog?
I am still old-school. I am slowly moving to digital but it’s hard to let go of the analog. So I guess, to answer your question, I work on both. After all, it’s not the camera… it’s the eye.
Who are your models in photography, if you have any, and why?
Most of my influences come from the African-American photographers.
I have always loved the work and sprit of Gordon Parks. Chester Higgins has been influential in my style. Harlee Little has taught me the business of photography. Stanely Green, Dudley Brooks…I can go on.
Which are your next projects?
I am working on a book and exhibition with Sebastian Cailleux and Micheal Tsegay entitled « Ethiopia Three: a visual journey in development ». It’s a photo project that documents the social, economic and cultural impacts of development in Ethiopia. I am also finishing a documentary film about Ethiopian children that were sent to Cuba during the late 70’s.
Let’s talk now about this documentary film: how do you manage between cinema and photography? How do these mediums interact and what are their specificities in your work?
Well, one is my foundation and the other is the structure. Being a photographer gives you the foundation on basic concepts such as composition, lighting and capturing moments. I often find myself shooting like a photojournalist when it comes to film. But I guess that is something that I can’t ever remove from my mind. Having picked up a photo camera gave me the confidence to shoot with a film camera; it gave me confidence when it came to directing because I am not a passive director. I think in and work on various mediums. For example, I might take a series of photos and put them together in a slide-show and it becomes an image in motion. Or I might compose a film frame like I was taking a picture….
Also, as a woman in the industry, knowing your equipment is an important factor to successful work.

Aida Muluneh Film’s website:
Interview carried out between February and August, 2008///Article N° : 8095

Les images de l'article
Girl in car © Aïda Muluneh
Priest by door © Aïda Muluneh
Spirit of Sisterhood © Aïda Muluneh
Bread Offering © Aïda Muluneh

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