Democratising art: Aïda Muluneh's mission to empower audiences and photographers

"It's been a really wonderful journey, but there's more to do" – Aïda Muluneh continues her work to change perceptions and empower photographers in Africa.
A woman leans up against a bus stop displaying photographer Aïda Muluneh's 2022 artwork This Is Where I Am as a car drives by.

The bus shelters of Boston, Chicago, New York, and Abidjan became a canvas for Aïda Muluneh's poignant homage to Ethiopia – This Is Where I Am. Drawing inspiration from the 1974 poem by Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, her artworks illustrate a deeply personal narrative of overcoming challenges and searching for truth against hand-painted backdrops that blend surrealism with Ethiopian cultural influences. © Ben Saïd Sangaré

Renowned photographer and Canon Ambassador Aïda Muluneh is not just an extraordinary talent, but an empowering inspiration for photographers around the world. Her compelling journey from her homeland of Ethiopia to the international stage is woven into her vibrant tapestry of striking images. Aïda is a master storyteller, using her lens not just to depict a scene, but to awaken a new understanding of her beloved continent.

In the 1980s, Aïda's journey led her from her native Ethiopia to Canada, broadening her perspective and helping to shape her unique visual voice. She further honed her craft at the esteemed Howard University in Washington DC and subsequently worked as a photojournalist at The Washington Post. Today, her work resonates from the halls of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, reflecting the global reach and impact of her talent.

Aïda is currently living in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, and is working between there and Ethiopia with a newfound mission: to inspire and empower the next generation of photographers. Through her work founding initiatives like the Addis Foto Fest, the Africa Print House and the Africa Foto Fair, she is nurturing talent and transforming the narrative of photography in Africa. Aïda is fervently committed to her vision, using her influence to change perceptions, shatter stereotypes and illuminate the untold stories of Africa.

A woman in a blue outfit and white faceprint emerges from the water, other faces emerging behind her, in Aïda Muluneh's 2017 artwork The Return Of The Departure.

Through her work Aïda propels African perspectives into the global conversation, challenging and reshaping perceptions along the way. Her stylised portraits often explore postcolonial Africa, her female subjects wearing theatrical garments and face paint to explore gender and identity, such as in this 2017 image, The Return Of The Departure, in Aïda's home city of Addis Ababa. © Aïda Muluneh

Two figures are seen in front of a stylised tree, both wearing a blue outfit and red hat, one kneeling in front of the other in Aïda Muluneh's 2020 artwork In Which We Remain.

Aïda's work explores the narrative arcs that have shaped our present, illuminating the historical paths that have led us here. Her 2020 artwork, In Which We Remain, is inspired by events of 1904 when the Herero people began an uprising against the German colonial forces. "The Namib Desert is a place of great beauty, but also a grave of the past," she says of the piece. © Aïda Muluneh

Investing in the continent

Utilising her experience and education to bring that knowledge to Africa is hugely important for Aïda, but spending time back in Ethiopia has also been crucial for the development of her own work. "I don't think if I'd remained in New York or Toronto that the same work would come to life," she says. "It's really been to my advantage to invest in the continent because there are a lot of topics that I have delved into that I could not do unless I'm on the ground interacting, breathing the air, drinking the water and really connecting with my own society."

If knowledge and power can be shared, then photographers in Africa can benefit in many ways. "We're in a $30 billion industry and I look at it not only from an artistic or advocacy point of view, but also from the financial aspect – how much of that pie are we getting?

"I think the world still doesn't know enough about the continent – there's still clichéd imagery being distributed internationally," she adds. "I think a lot of people, even our own governments, don't realise that photography is really that tool that impacts economics, social, politics – all these things."

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Figures sit on the pavement beside a bus shelter displaying Aïda Muluneh's 2022 artwork The Widows Of The Night, a road crossing and tall building in the background.

Displayed across 330 bus shelters from New York to Abidjan, Aïda's This Is Where I Am series offers a glimpse into her world – a symbiosis of national identity, global journeys and cultural history. Her 2022 piece The Widows Of The Night was displayed as part of a public installation curated by The Public Art Fund. © Ben Saïd Sangaré

Two figures walk towards a bus stop displaying Aïda Muluneh's 2022 artwork To Speak In Silence.

Aïda's commitment to public installations has transformed everyday environments into platforms for artistic expression. To Speak In Silence was displayed as part of This Is Where I Am, and shows three women holding jebena – traditional Ethiopian coffee pots – with the green, yellow and red colours of the artwork representing the Ethiopian flag. © Ben Saïd Sangaré

Breaking down stereotypes

Photography is a superb way to smash through stereotypes, as well as to present a more balanced view – particularly for an often misunderstood country like Ethiopia, or Africa more generally. But it's something that Aïda needs help with for it to work well. "Poverty is the easiest thing in my opinion to document, and a lot of foreign photographers come into the continent and this is what they're attracted to right away. I'm not interested in that – I'm interested in the backstory. How did we arrive at these points? What are the things that are dysfunctional in our society? How do we delve into a deeper perspective? That's really been my mission, and it's something that I've understood that I can't do alone. This is why I teach – because the more of us there are, the more perspectives that exist. I'm just one perspective because I have a Western education and I've lived in different parts of the world. How I see things is going to be different from somebody who was born and raised in one place."

One way to reach those wider audiences and change perceptions is through public art installations, which Aïda has created in a number of locations, notably using bus shelters as exhibition spaces in partnership with The Public Art Fund in New York, Boston, Chicago and Abidjan. "My ultimate focus is the universality of the messaging that I'm putting out there – it's also the questioning of our own humanity regardless of geographical location," she says. "I'm a big fan of instalments of work in public spaces. I exist between the museum system, the galleries and then outdoor installations – that has been a way for me to advocate much more broadly and really bring people in."

The printed product is a big passion for Aïda. "In my process of educating new talent, the final component has always been for them to see their work printed properly," she says. "This is why I have always fought for printing."

Aïda set up the Africa Print House in Abidjan to provide a high-quality printing service. "I tell a lot of photographers that your secrets come out in prints. On the screen, you can look at the same image 10,000 times, but when you print it you realise there is a glitch here, or there. It's a different way of imagining. When a photographer has never seen an audience reacting to printed work, it really changes their mindset and progresses them further, too."

A woman in a red dress and holding a blue umbrella stands in shallow water holding a white jug. Another woman crouches behind her, filling her water jug.

Advocacy through art: Aïda Muluneh's WaterAid project

Bold colours, body paint and billowing fabrics: the Ethiopian photographer challenging stereotypes to highlight water scarcity in Africa.
A top down view of a large exhibition hall, with people looking at images displayed on boards at the Addis Foto Fest.

For Aïda, the print is a treasured artefact. It's the tangible legacy of an ephemeral moment and often lasts longer than a digital version, especially in parts of the world with no reliable electricity. Aïda has founded a number of initiatives to support art in Africa and display photographer's physical prints, including the Addis Foto Fest (pictured), the Africa Print House and the Africa Foto Fair. Launched in 2010, the annual Addis Foto Fest in Addis Ababa welcomes photographers from around the world, its influence radiating out to international cities such as Johannesburg, London and Oslo. © Tom Saater

The advantages of print

Printed material is an important way to engage with the community, too, as Aïda proved with a project for the non-profit organisation WaterAid in 2018. "For me, I'm just at the inception, which is just photo printing, but in the long term, it's really to go into publishing," Aïda says. "We're in a continent where most of our problems stem from a lack of information and getting that to people – imagine you're in a village and there's no electricity or reliable network. The printed material is such an important component. It's fascinating that people hold on to paper. In the Western world, paper is starting to become obsolete, but in developing nations it's so important because it lives so much longer than anything digital."

Despite all her achievements, Aïda still has further to go with her mission. "It's been a really wonderful journey, but there's more to do. I'm just scratching the surface really on all of this." The next big thing coming up is of course the Africa Foto Fair, the second edition of which takes place in November 2023 in Abidjan. It looks to be even more impressive than the first, and will be a fantastic way to showcase photography in Africa and beyond.

Aïda Muluneh's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Aïda Muluneh leans forward to look through a Canon camera, taken by Ben Saïd Sangaré.


Canon EOS R5

Capture 45MP, full-frame images at 20fps in complete silence and with full autofocus tracking. Aïda holds the EOS R5 in particularly high regard for what she calls "exceptional performance". She finds that the results obtained through this camera "truly embody my artistic vision and take out small details in the subject".

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "A great camera for both my photojournalism and studio work. Its sturdiness is also quite amazing," says Aïda. Building on the success of its predecessor, the Mark IV can shoot at approximately 30.4MP and adds features such as Image Microadjustment, Bokeh Shift and Ghosting Reduction as standard.


Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

This lens delivers a new kind of optical performance in full-frame photography, with supreme sharpness, extra creative control and remarkable low-light performance. Its level of detail is ideal for fine-art photographers producing standout works for exhibition.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

Now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 IS II USM, this lens and its successor offer the ability to swap quickly between wide-angle, standard and short-telephoto focal lengths while maintaining an f/4 maximum aperture, providing an extended range without compromising on image sharpness. It's perfect for portraiture, with an impressive ability to capture facial expressions.

Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L MACRO

The 50mm focal length allows a natural view, while the lens has the added benefit of perspective control to correct verticals and adjust plane of focus, opening up creativity and giving the ability to direct more attention to the subject when setting up shots.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

This fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens is a favourite with photographers in virtually every genre. Aïda loves it for the "superb quality that translates well when printing an image". The lens' Fluorite and UD optics deliver high contrast and excellent resolution, and the f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it easy to emphasise pin-sharp subjects against a smooth out-of-focus background.


Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

This flash allows you to generate creative off-camera lighting from any direction using radio wireless control. It's easy to use, a customisable control dial allowing quick adjustments when working under pressure, while a large, illuminated display shows relevant shooting information at a glance.

Canon Mount Adaptor EF-EOS R

This adapter allows Aïda to use her favourite EF mount lenses on her Canon EOS R5 camera, maintaining the same levels of performance and functionality seen on her EOS DSLR and widening her options when it comes to new compositions.

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4100

Described by Aïda as providing "superb quality printing", this offers flawless photographic and fine art prints every time. Intelligent configuration of Canon's innovative 12-colour LUCIA PRO pigment ink technology and automatic media handling enable fast production with vivid colour expression.

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000

A wide dynamic range of colours and detail in darker areas means the 12-ink system in this printer can help to capture all the subtleties of your photos, from 10 x 15cm prints right up to A2 and 1.2m banner size. It's compatible with a wide range of media, including gloss, matte, fine art paper, and canvas, so you can display your images as they were meant to be seen.

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300

This stylish and compact A3+ printer offers borderless printing on glossy or fine art papers and prints panoramic images to custom lengths up to 990.6mm. Matte black ink enables deeper and more vivid blacks on fine art paper, making it a great choice for black and white photography.

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