Muluneh has won the European Union Prize at African Photography Encounters and the CRAF International Award of Photography. In 2020, Muluneh was given the Award for Photographic Curatorship of the Royal Photographic Society.
Muluneh was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1974. She spent her childhood in the UK, Yemen, Greece and Cyprus, before settling in Canada in 1985. As a teenager, Muluneh attended Western Canada High School in Alberta, Canada. While there she was on the school’s basketball team, and had grand aspirations of becoming a basketball star. She also dreamt of becoming a lawyer or excelling in a similarly respectable profession. These dreams took an unexpected turn when her art teacher opened up a disused darkroom for his students and gave her a camera to use. Although, Muluneh began shooting photographs in high school, she did not imagine it as a career. It wasn’t until her grandfather who lived in Ethiopia came to visit her family. He had served in the Ethiopian Air Force, but enjoyed painting in his spare time. Her grandfather saw something in her work, and told her to continue to work as an artist, rather than putting off her passion as a hobby. She received her BA in film, radio, and television from Howard University in 2000. After her studies she worked as a photojournalist at The Washington Post and since then her work has been shown in many publications. She has since returned to Ethiopia and is based in Addis Ababa.
Muluneh incorporates the primary colors into her art photography work. The deep reds, blues, and yellows, can be seen from a great distances from her paintings. The primary colors are referencing church wall paintings that can be seen in Ethiopia.
Muluneh’s work also primarily features women, this is due to her belief that there is power in the gaze of the woman. By utilizing subjects that are primarily women, Muluneh is able to share her experience with the world. In an interview with NPR Muluneh states, “There's an expression that if you teach something to a man, you teach one person, but if you teach something to a woman, you're teaching the whole society.
Muluneh states, "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 email interview. "I utilize 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 work is included in the collection of the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. One of her pieces was selected as the poster picture for The Divine Comedy, Contemporary African Artists travelling exhibition. She is the founder and director of the international photography festival Addis Foto Fest, a biennial exhibition of global photography. The Addis Foto Fest aimed to bring photography, which had yet to be fully accepted as an art form, to the masses in the same way that photographic studios brought to the public an activity that was once seen as restricted to the aristocracy. Several thousand people attended the exhibitions, aspiring photographers participated in workshops and portfolio reviews with established photographers, and new audiences found their way into galleries and cultural institutions for the first time.
Muluneh's work recognizes the ability that images have to influence the world's perception of people.
Her first solo exhibit series, The World is Nine, at David Krut Projects in New York, was created in 2016 and inspired by her grandmother. Muluneh digs deep down to her roots as an Ethiopian, and gives birth to a humble 28 piece series of culture, space, politics, history, the present, and future in a modern artistic way. Photographs taken at Leghar train station in Addis Ababa, of models with African and Ethiopian complexions, painted bodies with in bright bold colors and traditional African body paint. Muluneh reminisces on a time when she was not yet born but is instilled with her grandmother’s words that “The world is a 9, it is never complete and it’s never perfect.” Muluneh states, “Each work is a reflection of conscious and sub-conscious manifestations of time and space”.
In her photograph "The Past, the Present and the Future" from The World is Nine series, Muluneh expresses full awareness of her present with a firm grip on her past and future. Author M. Neelika Jayawardane’s outlook agrees, "…somewhere in between nostalgia for the past and a future that has yet to come". In the photograph, a single woman represents the three stages of a woman’s life, the past, present and future. The woman’s body is painted in a bright cerulean blue, with white dots going down the center of her face, following her neck and chest. These dots are symbolic of asymmetry and traditional African body painting. She wears the colors of Ethiopian flag proudly, a bright canary yellow head scarf that hangs before the front of her upper body and a bold long red dress. The women stand strong and tall, centered in the middle of a pure white background, “The white color symbolizes purity, peace, and beauty”.
Muluneh’s 99 series consist of several careful staged portraits of a young woman who appears to be of African descent. She is entirely covered in heavy paint and makeup, that color her body and face white, and her hands are painted a dark red. The white paint gives the young woman the look of being a ghost or between life and death. The white paint may be in reference to Xhosa face painting. Xhosa men apply white clay on their face and bodies soon after the circumcision ceremony. This affirms the notion that Muluneh’s photographs are about “transition and transformation”.
Muluneh feels compelled to change the infamous "single story" told about Africa, which is the story of poverty, despair and corruption. Every other December since 2010, she has presented Addis Foto Fest (AFF), which has become the largest photography festival in Africa. She aims to use the festival as a catalyst to promote change within the minds of non-Africans.“I wanted to build bridges between photographers around the world, not just Africa,” says Muluneh, whose own work has been exhibition in several major exhibitions abroad. At portfolio reviews and panel discussions, she shares what she learned from the African-American mentors who gave her opportunities in photography. And through the exhibitions and awards ceremonies at Addis Foto Fest, she hopes to amplify the voices of up-and-coming storytellers. “The festival is an expansion of my passion,” she says. “You can fantasize about reaching your own goals but your legacy is always who you can be proud of, who you have passed the torch to.” As Hannah Giorgis put it in The Atlantic: "Muluneh is not modest about the endeavor: 'I am basically taking the past to the future,' she said of her mission to galvanize the work of artistic self-portrayal and help shape a new vision of the continent."
Aida Muluneh is the founder of DESTA (Developing and Educating Societies through the Arts) which is an organization that seeks to develop opportunities in the global community for African artist throughout the diaspora. Muluneh returned to Addis Abba from abroad to create a series of educational photography initiatives administered through her nonprofit DESTA for Africa. Her efforts are centered on the activist conversation with photographers who have an interest in contemporary issues that affect continent of Africa. Muluneh utilizes teaching as way to change the situation in her country at a local level. She encourages high level instruction, student exchanges, and access to technology.
Publications by Muluneh
- Ethiopia: Past, Forward. Brussels: Africalia Editions and Roularta, 2009. ISBN 9789086792009. With an introduction and text by Eddy Boutmans and Simon Njami. Text in English, Dutch and French.
- The World is 9. Johannesburg: David Krut, 2016. OCLC 1021854566. Includes "A stronger light" by Lemn Sissay. In English with subtitles also in Amharic.
Publications with contributions by Muluneh
- Fiona Rogers and Max Houghton, Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. ISBN 978-0500544747.
- 2007: European Union Prize, African Photography Encounters, Bamako, Mali.
- 2010: Winner, International Award of Photography, Centro di Ricerca e Archiviazione della Fotografia (CRAF), Spilimbergo Fotografia, Italy.
- Ethiopia Past/forward, Christiansand Kunstforening, Christianssand, 2011
- The World is 9, David Krut Projects, New York City, 2016
- Work from The World is Nine and 99 Series, VivaneArt, Calgary, part of Alberta’s Exposure Photography Festival, 2017
- Reflections of Hope: Aida Muluneh in the Aga Khan Park, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, 2018
- Ethiopian Passages - Dialogues in the Diaspora, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2003
- Imágenes Havana, Havana, Cuba, 2003
- 8th International Open, Woman Made Gallery, Chicago, IL, 2005
- Body of Evidence (Selections from the Contemporary African Art Collection), National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2006
- Spot on..., ifa-Galerie Berlin, 2008
- Spot On… Bamako, Vii. African Photography Encounters, ifa-Galerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 2009
- Always Moving Forward, Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto, ON, 2010
- The Divine Comedy - Heaven, Purgatory And Hell Revisited By Contemporary African Artists, Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK), Frankfurt/Main, 2014; SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA
- 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, David Krut Projects Booth, Brooklyn, New York, 2016
- I love Africa, Festival La Gacilly-Baden Photo, Austria, 2018
- Being: New Photography, MoMA, New York City, 2018
- "Aïda Muluneh: founder and director Addis Foto Fest, Canada/Ethiopia". World Press Photo. Retrieved August 30, 2018.
- Kiunguyu, Kylie (27 August 2018). "Ethiopia's Acclaimed Photographer Aida Muluneh Uses Visual Art to Share Her Heritage". This Is Africa. Retrieved 30 August 2018 – via AllAfrica.
- "Helen's Heroine - Aïda Muluneh". Royal Photographic Society. Archived from the original on 25 August 2018. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
- "Coloured skin: the body art of Aida Muluneh – in pictures". The Guardian. 21 February 2017. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved August 30, 2018.
- "Aida Muluneh (Ethiopian, born 1974)", artnet.
- "Watch: 'Nterini' from our next cover star, Fatoumata Diawara". Songlines. Retrieved August 30, 2018.
- Jayawardane, M. Neelika; Muluneh (2016). "Between Nostalgia and Future Dreaming". Transition: An International Review. 120 (120): 116–131. doi:10.2979/transition.120.1.12. JSTOR 10.2979/transition.120.1.12. S2CID 156747975..
- Moges-Gerbi, Meron (August 20, 2018). "Aida Muluneh: Changing the narrative on Ethiopia, one photo at a time". CNN Style. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
- Giorgis, Hannah (June 2019). "The Photographer Fighting Visual Clichés of Africa". The Atlantic. Retrieved 6 June 2019.
- Jacewicz, Natalie (2018-04-22). "With Paint And A Camera, She's Forging A New Artistic Vision Of Africa". NPR.org. Retrieved 2019-11-06.
- Moges-Gerbi, Meron (31 Jan 2019). "Aida Muluneh: Changing the Narrative on Ethiopia, One Photo at a Time". CNN Style.
- "Collections - National Museum of African Art". africa.si.edu.
- Kimani, Wanja (2015-05-01), "Re-imagining Ethiopia", Images of Africa, Manchester University Press, pp. 167–187, doi:10.7228/manchester/9780719091469.003.0009, ISBN 9780719091469
- "Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival". www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com. Archived from the original on 23 March 2019. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
- "AIDA MULUNEH | The World is 9 | David Krut Projects | Artsy". www.artsy.net. Retrieved 6 June 2019.
- Delafosse, Maurice (2015). African Art. Parkstone International. ISBN 9781783107865. OCLC 969028129.
- "A history of photography", Women Photographers and Feminist Aesthetics, Routledge, 2017-04-21, pp. 181–195, doi:10.4324/9781315628912-10, ISBN 9781315628912
- Bajekal, Naina (7 Feb 2019). "How This Ethiopian Photographer Is Giving Storytellers a New Platform". Time.
- Harney, Elizabeth (2003). Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art from the Diaspora. Philip Wilson. p. 80.
- Bajorek, Jennifer; Haney, Erin (December 2010). "Eye on Bamako". Theory, Culture & Society. 27 (7–8): 263–284. doi:10.1177/0263276410383718. ISSN 0263-2764. S2CID 144294704.
- "'The testament to one's strength is determined on what we choose to do with the challenges that we face'". Addis Standard. 9 December 2014. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
- "Aida Muluneh - VivianeArt". vivianeart.gallery. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
- "Africa, Baden and Honorary Fellows". Royal Photographic Society. 2018-07-06. Archived from the original on 2018-11-13. Retrieved 30 August 2018.