Art

Interview: Aida Muluneh supports WaterAid’s Art of Change Campaign

“………………….our bigger issue is not this disease; it is the collapse of the planet. And it’s an opportunity for Africa and for the world in which technology is going to play a major part as an equalizer. If young people in Africa are able to access that technology, everybody is in the same position”. Aida Muluneh

Photographer/entrepreneur and artist Aida Muluneh joins artists Grayson Perry and Jean Jullien, and actor Russell Tovey in rallying support for WaterAid’s new campaign, Art of Change, which calls for clean water and hygiene for everyone everywhere.

Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases like coronavirus, yet three billion people worldwide have nowhere to wash their hands with soap and clean water at home, and one in four health centres lack these basic facilities on site, putting lives at risk.

Born in Addis Ababa in 1974, Aïda graduated with a degree from the Communication Department with a major in Film from Howard University in Washington D.C. Her photography can be found in several publications and also in the permanent collection at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Hood Museum, The RISD Museum of Art and the Museum of Biblical Art in the United States. She is the 2007 recipient of the European Union Prize in the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, in Bamako, Mali, the 2010 winner of the CRAF International Award of Photography in Spilimbergo, Italy, a 2018 CatchLight Fellow in San Francisco, USA. In 2019, she also became the first black woman to co-curator of the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition while serving as a Canon Europe Ambassador.

She has been a jury member on several photography competitions, most notably the Sony World Photography Awards 2017 and the World Press Photo Contest 2017. She has also been on various panel discussions on photography, such as the African Union cultural summit, Art Basel, and TEDx/Johannesburg. In 2019, she also gave the renowned Sem Presser Lecture at the World Press Photo Festival in Amsterdam.  Aida is the founder of the Addis Foto Fest (AFF), the first international photography festival in East Africa held since 2010.She continues develop cultural projects with local and international institutions through her company DFA PLC in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Her latest exhibit Aïda Muluneh’s Homebound: A Journey in Photography can be viewed online link below. Alt caught up with her discussing “Art of Change” and how the impact of Covid-19 is forcing Africa to digital up.

ALT: How did you get involved in WaterAid?

Aida: WaterAid contacted me as they wanted to do something different to the usual sort of NGO photos, which I thought was interesting as this was my first encounter of a large charity requesting a fresh way of addressing global social issues. So together we developed the Water Life project.

ALT: How have you shaped the initiative?

Aida: The key thing for me was to focus on access to water in rural Ethiopia, as I have family in the rural region so know quite well the issue of a lack of water there and how it impacts society, especially for women.

While many people take water for granted, millions of women spend hours each day collecting water. I have done some extensive research on how this affects women’s lives and how its impact goes through the core of every society.

I chose to shoot in the Danakil Desert, which is in the upper region of Ethiopia. It is basically a desert, so very hot and with extremely limited water access. It was an ideal place to create striking, thought-provoking pieces relating to different aspects of the impacts of water.

ALT: How did you find photography? Was that something you’ve always done?

Aida: Photography is just my way of expressing things that I see or experience. My intent or passion is to make a contribution to changing this world we live in; all my activities are based on that. I don’t just exhibit my work, I’m also an educator, I run a festival and do lectures, and am a Canon ambassador. There are all these different hats I wear; there’s a lot of things behind the work.

ALT: How has Addis Foto Fest been impacted by Covid-19.  And how do you feel about the new digitalization of art?

Aida: I think we spend way too much time looking at a problem and not finding solutions or being innovative. This situation is a tragedy, but it can also be seen as an opportunity on many levels. It gives us a chance to look at the condition of our planet, because our bigger issue is not this disease; it is the collapse of the planet. And it’s an opportunity for Africa and for the world in which technology is going to play a major part as an equalizer. If young people in Africa are able to access that technology, everybody is in the same position.

Most of us in Africa are just working to find solutions. Things have not stopped as you cannot stop Africa; it is impossible. We’re transferring everything to a virtual format, meaning we’re able to share that content globally; it’s not limited to just the people who have come to the exhibition.

ALT: Do you think that Africa is now more equipped in the last 10 years to deal with the digital demands you know right now with the Pandemic?

Aida: If I were a government official in Africa, I’d be investing in technology; it has to be a priority, because that’s what it’s coming down to. As artists, as curators, as contributors, we’re creative people and we have to find another way of engaging an audience and at a much larger scale. This is a visual society that consumes things visually at the end of the day. I think people spend more time on their screens than they did before. This is an opportunity; that is how we’re taking it at Addis Foto Fest.

ALT: Why would you say it is important for artist to get involved in the WaterAid Art of Change campaign?

Aida: Right now, it is truly relevant because we are part of the problem and we are part of the solution. You can ask scientists, you can look at predictions, you can look at religion, all these things, everything is moving forward towards destruction. I wonder 40 or 50 years from now, what kind of mess this place will be in? So there has to be a sense of urgency. At the end, the biggest question is going to be the survival of humanity. So, young people need to be engaged, it is their future.

ALT: Do you think leaders are failing when it comes to the need to digitalize Africa despite global initiatives going into Africa, particularly for women in technology?

Aida: They certainly have some success points. In Ethiopia, the plan is to privatize the network to offer better services, and there’s actually competition in the network, which creates economies in new ways of doing business. It’s a bigger political question, not just about blaming African governments. You also have to see the outside influence and look at the remnants of colonial powers. So, there is a lot to be discussed on that. But I do believe that the youth will push this agenda forward because they are the ones that are going to be accountable for what’s ahead as well.

ALT: Witnessing the murder of George Floyd, how do you feel that plays into art and the artistic movement and protests?

Aida: It is a conversation that has been going on for a while amongst many artists. For me, it’s not about the conversation now. It is what is the solution.  We need a long-term solution, not a short fad that they forget about next year.

ALT: Do you think when protests stop that the conversation will die down. Or is this perhaps a watershed moment where we will continue to talk about race?

Aida: No, for me, the protest is the catalyst. But then the next step is the implementation into the system. Right now, I feel we must go into strategic policy making and really look at what the problem is, how did it surface, and then to find the solution.

I believe that the struggle of African Americans is an intense one. To have endured so much and so many different levels of hatred. This is something I think America has to really resolve.

More about this year’s Addis Foto Fest here:  http://addisfotofest.com/

Sharjah Art Museum http://theafricainstitute.org/aida-muluneh.php#english

How artists can get involved in Art of Change

WaterAid is inviting artists to help address this injustice by using their creative skills as a force for good, producing inspiring and thought-provoking work linked to the theme of water and health to drive change and help transform lives

Amateur and professional artists can enter, and have until 27 July to submit their work, which will be put before the all-star panel, including Perry, Muluneh, Tovey and Jullien, who will shortlist their top 12. The public will then get to vote on their favourite. Apply here: http://www.wateraid.org/uk/art-of-change


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