Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Muluneh has lived in Yemen, the UK, Cyprus, Canada and the United States. Muluneh is also the founder and director of Addis Foto Fest, as well as FanaWogi, a yearly open-call for contemporary supporting contemporary artists in Ethiopia. As part of this year’s FNB JoburgArtFair‘s East Africa Focus. Aida Muluneh’s project consists of a selection of images from her latest series of photographic works entitled ‘the world is 9.’ It comes from an expression that Muluneh’s grandmother repeated, in which she stated “the world is 9, it is never complete and never perfect.”
ART AFRICA: You moved back to Ethiopia, your country of birth, in 2007. You refer to this experience as a “lesson in humility.” What was it about this experience that you found so humbling?
Aida Muluneh: Living and working in a developing nation has its challenges, especially for someone like myself who has spent most of my time outside of Ethiopia. Hence, when I speak about humility it is not just about the lessons learnt through the challenges here but also about the moments of beauty in the everyday that are embedded in our society. Being in Ethiopia, I have been a witness to the full spectrum of humanity, from absolute misery to joy and love. I mention this because back in 2002, which was my first visit to Ethiopia, it took me five months to even begin to process and express my experiences without breaking down and crying. Living here and seeing the painful irony of the existence of my people between wealth and poverty on a daily basis has made me much more aware and grateful of my own privilege. I feel that the plight of the less fortunate in the West can be compartmentalised, hidden and swept under the rug of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by those who are comfortable in tuning into ignorance and denial. In Ethiopia, you have no choice but to witness both extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum every day. Therefore, through my experiences, I have learnt that if we want to change Africa for the better, we must first learn humility.
When I mention ‘digestible’ it implies that regardless of the audience, I want my work to feed the mind and soul of the viewer. I want it to be universally accessible. I strive to create works that cross borders, boundaries and cultures. I am often frustrated with the amount of “over-conceptualised” work that is out in the art market, that is viewed and understood only amongst a small elite, which at times is more about the stroking of the artist’s ego. I am a simple person, I don’t pretend to be anything more than who I am, hence my work is the visual diary to the abyss of my soul.
Your work represents an attempt toward the universal. Is the work on show at the FNB JoburgArtFair representative of Ethiopia in any way?
I have often said that Ethiopia gave birth to me but the world raised me. Thus, my work is a reflection of my global experiences as well as being deeply rooted in my Ethiopian background. In most of my work, the general audience might see colour, lines, shapes and so forth, but for the Ethiopian audience I have inserted elements of our culture that fuse traditional Ethiopian elements into the contemporary.
In 2010 you founded Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia. It must be interesting to experience fairs from both sides, as an organiser and as a participating artist. Does this insight give you a greater appreciation for these events, and what do you think could be done to include more of the artist’s voice in such spaces?
In my office we jokingly call the Addis Foto Fest the ‘beautiful nightmare’ because as a private company we face enormous challenges to organise such an event. We are not an NGO but a business, and for me the bigger conversation has been about how to develop the creative industry in Africa. Functioning both as an artist and as an organiser has given me great insight about the ways in which art impacts society, economics and politics. I believe we need more of our artists’ involvement in order to positively address and implement changes in the art scene of our countries. This also means that we need our governments supporting the development of curators, cultural workers and art critics so that we can decrease our dependency on foreign support. Let us not forget culture is “soft” power.
You’ve recently managed to crowd-fund an AtWork project for the upcoming Addis Foto Fest in December. How important is an initiative like this, and do you think this approach to funding could potentially work hand-in-hand with corporate sponsorship to broaden the reach of cultural knowledge systems?
It is never easy to raise funds for cultural activities globally. In the case of the AtWork project, the lettera27 Foundation took it upon themselves to find the necessary means via crowd-funding. In addition, the utilisation of crowd-funding has supported a great deal of independent artist-led initiatives. I think we can look at this type of funding as a role model for future projects. What I find interesting about the idea of crowd-funding is that it is basically the audience themselves who are investing in you. It is a community investment with no constraining strings attached. When we look at the current trends in Africa, most of the cultural funding has come from foreign cultural institutions. On one hand they have given much needed support for the growth of artists, but on the other hand it has also been problematic when we raise issues of self-sustainability and thematic autonomy. In my opinion, what is needed is direct investments as opposed to grant-based funding for the long term growth of our creative sector. When we look at corporate sponsorship, it is based on a straight forward business to business relationship which allows us the flexibility and freedom to pursue our goals. This is not necessarily the case when we apply for funding from foreign cultural institutions. Consequently, we need to begin a new and realistic conversation about art funding in Africa – a conversation that takes into consideration the voices of local artists and cultural workers. Otherwise, I believe that the future of cultural funding in Ethiopia is going to have to be based on the increased participation of our governments and the corporate sectors.
This interview was first published in the September 2016 edition of ART AFRICA magazine, entitled ‘BEYOND FAIR’.