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Ethiopia’s acclaimed photographer Aida Muluneh uses visual art to share her heritage

Aida Muluneh is an internationally recognised photographer whose work told the story of Ethiopia long before it became a trend – and long before the tremendous changes the country has seen under the new regime



Aida Muluneh was born in Ethiopia in 1974, but left the country at a young age. She spent her childhood between Yemen and England, finally settling in Canada in 1985. She graduated with a degree in communications, majoring in film, from Howard University in Washington D.C. in 2000.

Muluneh’s work has been shown in South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Egypt, Canada, United States of America, France, Germany, England and China, among others. Collections of her images can be found in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the Hood Museum and the Museum of Biblical Art in the United States. She is also the 2007 recipient of the European Union Prize in the African Photography Encounters, held in Bamako, Mali; the 2010 winner of the CRAF International Award of Photography in Spilimbergo, Italy, and a 2018 CatchLight Fellow in San Francisco, USA.

She currently serves as a Canon Ambassador and is the founder and director of the Addis Foto Fest (AFF), the first international photography festival in East Africa, which has been running since 2010. Her website goes on to say that she continues to educate, curate and develop cultural projects with local and international institutions through her company, DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art) For Africa Creative Consulting) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

She told CNN, “The main challenges for photographers on our continent is the lack of adequate and sufficient institutions that teach photography to help African photographers compete in the international market,” she said. “I believe that our focus should be in developing a visual language that offers a balanced perspective as it relates to Africa. This, however, cannot be accomplished until we build our own institutions and platforms to share these perspective images.”

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Muluneh’s work shows a clear passion for Ethiopia and outlines aspects of culture and tradition. She went on to say, “My work often starts with a sketch, and I approach each image as a film production in which the character, set design, lighting and styling come together,” she said in an e-mail interview. “I utilise face painting as a form in which the inspiration is driven by body ornamentation, not only in my country but also various parts of the world. I am deeply influenced by various traditional cultures, hence, in a sense, I am bringing the past into the future through various forms.”

Her strong aesthetic and visual poetry pieces are easy to recognise while being emotionally evocative. Some of her themed pieces include:

“All in one”

This is a piece about faith and spirituality. “I wanted to create a piece in dialogue both with paintings you find in orthodox churches and with images of Haile Selassie, who was often posed in paintings holding an orb (symbolising the world) in one hand, and the other hand making a gesture with three fingers, symbolising the Holy Trinity.”

“The American Dream”

This is a representation of race in America for people of colour. Muluneh uses a famous quote by James A Baldwin to sum up its message: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

“I in the other”

This is simply a tribute to otherness.


“Romance is dead”

The story of the two wolves that represent everyone’s internal struggles.

“The Morning Bride”

“This is a piece about two kinds of women: the one who is eager to get married and the one who is married off without wanting to be married. For many women in this country, there is pressure from families to get married and have children. It is interesting to me that as we move closer to modernity in this country, a tug-of-war exists for women who want to pursue their careers and at the same time have a family.”