The story behind this surreal portrayal of Ethiopian identity

A former photojournalist, Aïda Muluneh now creates images that raise questions, rather than offer answers.

Muluneh has spent years creating surreal photographs of majestic African women with symbols that take conflict, history and power into account. The painted eye motifs, as well as the unflinching gaze of her subjects, represent the need to bear witness, the chairs represent seats of influence, and the curtains part to display the performance art of politics.

Now, the Ethiopian artist’s images have taken over hundreds of bus stops in New York, Chicago, Boston and her current home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, through the exhibition “Aïda Muluneh: This Is Where I Am,” curated by the Public Art Fund, a non-profit organization based in New York City.

Although Muluneh’s work has already served as public art, including outdoor exhibitions in Europe, “This is where I am” is his largest public installation to date.

“Whenever I have the opportunity to show my work in very public spaces, I usually participate in those types of projects,” he said. “I have always believed that you also have to bring art to the people, not just contain it in elite spaces, museums or galleries.”

In a striking image from the installation, titled “Speaking Silently,” Muluneh uses a recurring object in her work, the traditional Ethiopian coffee pot, or jebena, as a call for open dialogue in her home country.

Muluneh will not rely on exactly what dialogue should be held, but in recent years Ethiopia has seen political instability and armed conflict in the Tigray region of the country.

“I come from a culture where we don’t talk openly about things. There is no really open discourse,” Muluneh said in a telephone interview.

“Speaking quietly,” as with his other images, has instantly recognizable meanings within his culture, Muluneh said. The scene is depicted in the vivid green, yellow, and red colors of the Ethiopian flag, while a seated woman, eyes on the camera, is flanked by twin figures holding the curved handle of the jebena. In perfect symmetry, they tilt the containers, although no liquid is spilled.

“Our coffee ceremony has a lot of symbolism… it’s a meeting point to have discussions, enjoy moments, etc.,” Muluneh explained. For her, the jebena “is symbolic as a form of communication.”


In her work, Muluneh uses hand-painted backgrounds and body paint on her models, who have been chosen from Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast, to increase the power of the imagery and the dreamlike effect.

He has produced a series on water scarcity for the non-profit organization WaterAid, photographed in the inhospitable salt flats of Dallol, Ethiopia, as well as working for the Norwegian Nobel Peace Center, exploring how hunger is weaponized during war.

The latest body of work takes its name from the poem “This Is Where I Am” by the Ethiopian poet and novelist Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, written in 1974, the year the Ethiopian revolution began and Muluneh was born. Five years later, Muluneh and her mother left the country, moving to Yemen, England and Cyprus, and eventually to Canada.

The poem’s emotionally charged prose is set against the backdrop of war as the protagonist watches in horror, bearing the weight of responsibility.

Gabre-Medhin “expresses this sense of helplessness or frustration” in dealing with the impact of war, Muluneh explains: “all these things that we, as artists, became witnesses to. We played a role in documenting those moments.” .

But Muluneh’s images are more enigmatic than straightforward. World events are rarely orderly, and Muluneh resists the idea that open discussions mean having to take hard-line positions.

“With this body of work, I’m very curious about what the reception from my own people is going to be like,” he said. “But these are the conversations that I feel we need to have, regardless of whether people want to have them or not, and I think we spend too much time in silence.”

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