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See It Now: Capturing Photographer Aida Muluneh In the Earth's Hottest Place

By David Schonauer   Monday October 28, 2019


Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression is beautiful in its severity.

The area, in East Africa’s Afar region, is the hottest place on Earth: Temperatures regularly climb 120 degrees Fahrenheit in this sere, otherworldly landscape, which served as a perfect setting for a new body of work from Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh focusing on issues surrounding access to water.

Commissioned by the international NGO WaterAid, Muluneh’s series “Water Life” brings her signature style — explosions of color and symbolism — to represent the daily hardships women endure across the globe to collect water for their families.

"When you look at climate change, scarcity of land, and overpopulation, there are many issues that lead back to water. I didn’t realise how deep it went—all the way to education and how this impacts young girls, who often have to collect water rather than go to school. I wanted to use my artwork for a sense of purpose,” Muluneh tells the video platform Nowness, which captured Muluneh at work in her Addis Ababa studio and in the Danakil Depression for its “Photographers In Focus” series.

“It is a breathtaking place,” says London-based director Adeyemi Michael, who created the short film. “I understood right away why Aïda chose to shoot in Afar. It brings power and resonance to the conversation she is having with the collection.”

The video was included in a recent exhibition at Somerset House in London during the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

As the founder of Addis Foto Fest—a biannual arts festival in the Ethiopian capital—Muluneh is committed to uniting Africa and the world through photography, notes Nowness. The “Water Life” series “dismantles the single narrative told about the continent by incorporating visual references from African cultural heritage into a contemporary aesthetic,” adds the platform.

Muluneh, who has worked in both photojournalism and fine art, tells Dazed that it was important to her to approach the subject of water access and women’s rights in a novel way. “I felt those photojournalist images had already been done,” she says. “I wanted to bring a new interpretation and attract a different audience that may not be aware of the issues the series is addressing – to try to educate people through art.”  

Each of the images in the series features a strong female protagonist. “Not having direct access to water has a big impact on society across Ethiopia, and the whole of Africa,” Muluneh says. “If a woman spends three hours a day trying to get water for cooking or feeding or bathing, that’s time taken from, say, a young girl getting an education. If there isn’t water in the schools, then when girls are menstruating they’re not able to attend because they can’t wash. This has a deeper impact on the development of our nation and our countries.”

“Women who know their power are magical,” says director Michael. “Aïda is certainly one of those, and her images are iconic. When I was asked to make a film about her process representing the plight of women without access to water, there was an instant synergy with themes in my work, which speaks to the empowerment of African women.”

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