Aïda Muluneh: The Art of Advocacy
12 January – 23 February 2023
Efiɛ Gallery, Dubai
United Arab Emirates
“Three women stand proudly in the middle of a pile of dead branches while donning rich long blue theatrical dresses akin to haute couture gowns. Their faces are painted blue and white while their necks are decorated with black geometric patterns and their heads are wrapped in prominent white turbans. Their prominent stance and presence is rendered more powerful amid what appears to be a dark forest surrounded by decay, a few trees with sparse branches and curious white painted human hands that graciously align the outer rim of the pile of dead branches. The central woman stares directly out at the viewer as if to boldly state her survival and her willingness to fight against all darkness. The work is In the Valley of My Shadow(2021), and it is one of several of the stark, stylized portrait photographs by acclaimed Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh that are on view in The Art of Advocacy, the artist’s first solo exhibition with Efie Gallery in Dubai. Muluneh has become known for her powerful staged photographs that capture both the realities and fictions of postcolonial Africa. Her female subjects exert strength and power within their environments, conjuring up daily life in Africa and subjects of gender and identity, particularly pertaining to the artist’s hometown of Addis Ababa.
Art, Muluneh strongly believes, can be used as a tool for change. The Ethiopian-born artist creates her poignant stylized photographic works in a manner so visually acute that the viewer will feel their emotional pull—from the power of the images Muluneh choosesto depict and the way they are rendered—long after their eyes have left her work. Like the title of this show, Muluneh’s works are tools for advocacy—they wrestle with the unspoken realities of life on the African continent exhibited through Muluneh’s delicately and boldly manifested images. The works displayed in this show are both tender and strong, like her female protagonists who proudly and graciously exhibit their womanhood amid the countless challenging circumstances that Muluneh renders around them. As the artist eloquently and fervently states, the mission and vision of works such as these is to raise questions on behalf of the viewer, pique their curiosity to understand more and to break down the often misconceived and misinterpreted portrayals of life in Ethiopia and on the African continent by the international media.
The works in The Art of Advocacy are powerful not only in their singular stylistic vision, but also for thecrucial themes they advocate related to human rights, including issues concerning climate change, conflict,and health—not just prevalent in Africa, but worldwide. The show includes works from The Road of Glory (2020), a series commissioned for the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition, exploring how food and hunger are used as weapons during times of war. Such works reveal expansive landscapes punctuated by several delicately and elegantly rendered women, always with their faces colorfully painted and donning vibrant dresses that evoke the traditional attire of her home country, battling systematic destruction and suffering. Other works, like the series Water Life (2018), address the increasing lack of water in rural areas and how this impacts a woman’s freedom, access to education, health care and basic sanitation.
The issues that Muluneh advocates through her worksare rendered more powerful by her new style, which see her incorporating hand-painting onto each photograph. She began the practice several years ago after a visit to South Africa that inspired her to deepen her photographic style by marrying the digital medium with the analog through mixed media. It is in this new manner which Muluneh’s creates her work that makes them seem almost painterly, vivid, fresh, and alive yet acutely synonymous with everyday life, just like the photographic lens will capture.
Viewing Muluneh’s works leave an indefinite mark on one’s personal and collective memory. So unique in their artistry, so passionate in their quest for changeand desire to tackle pre-conceived stereotypes and perceptions, her works, in their very essence of being, are a gracious yet powerful protest on behalf of all those everyday voices that often are left unheard, wishing to tell their stories, desiring to be recognized. Muluneh fuels those voices, provides them with a platform through her art, and in so doing, through the poignant and emotive artistry of her work advocates for a new understanding and ultimately, for change.” – Curatorial essay by Rebecca Anne Proctor