The Ethiopian photographic artist discusses her new project for WaterAid that fuses art with purpose, on view at 1-54

Ethiopian artist Aïda Muluneh has revealed a very special and poignant new project at Somerset House, as part of 1-54 London. The Addis Foto Fest founder is renowned for her richly hued, highly conceptual portraits that employ a modern take on traditional African body painting to express myriad ideas of gender and postcolonial identity. Her works are in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C and MoMA in NYC and have been exhibited worldwide. But with this latest series, Water Life, she uses her work to even greater purpose. Commissioned by WaterAid, images were shot in the arid Afar District of Ethiopia and look at the huge issue of water scarcity in rural communities across Africa and how this especially affects girls and women.

Here Muluneh unfolds the project in her own words:

As artists, one of our key roles is really to be the messenger to the public, to be able to transmit and to share not just our ideas but certain issues that are ongoing in contemporary Africa. There are many ways to deliver a message, to inspire and educate people; to create change in both global and daily life issues. For me, the Water Life project commissioned by WaterAid and currently on display at Somerset House in London, offered me the opportunity for the first time to integrate my artwork with advocacy.

It has been a powerful experience bringing a real sense of purpose to my artwork. It’s also been something of a personal journey; utilising my creativity to advocate for something specific that is close to my heart, in this case - water scarcity and the impact on women. For me, it’s about being courageous and breaking away from those traditional images and present a unique perspective; to show that there is a contemporary scene, that there is a contemporary future in the continent. This is what Water Life has enabled for me.

Water Life was commissioned by WaterAid and supported by the H&M Foundation. But it is not simply a commissioned piece; it is personal. Globally, one in ten people have no clean water close to home and in Ethiopia, it’s almost four in ten. I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this startling reality and to bring my voice to the issue of water scarcity and climate change through the eyes of women. I come from a family that lives in the rural region of Ethiopia and I see how they are impacted. It is undeniable that not having access to water is much bigger than just whether or not you have clean water to drink. Not having water impacts societies and communities and the development of our nation and our countries. Without water, a community cannot thrive and achieve its full potential.

There is no escaping the fact that it is girls and women who mainly bear the responsibility for the collection of water. Every time I travel to different regions in Africa for my artwork, I see long lines of women laden down by their water carriers. The Water Life project sparked up my passion to explore the theme of ‘how access to water has a trickling effect’. Through my work with WaterAid I began to understand and learn about the deeper impact of lack of access to clean water – how it impacts women’s progress all the way to education and young girls and the future of communities.

There was part of me that considered exploring this issue through the lens of photojournalism and documenting it in the traditional way of women walking for water and being at the well. But we’ve seen these images many times. It’s what’s expected from the continent, especially when you are trying to promote or advocate for a specific issue. I felt there was a different way of portraying this aspect of life for women in Africa and that through my vision I could shift people’s perceptions about the women as well as the continent; to show that as well as the challenges we also have the beauty, the history and the heritage.

The key point remains the same however - educating people through the form of art. Through the women I chose to photograph for each of the 12 pieces in Water Life, I wanted to emphasise the strength of the woman. Being an African woman and all the challenges I have gone through, I want to show that perseverance, courage and strength.

My intention is for people to look at each image and see the gaze of dignity, pride and humility looking right back at them. I’m not looking for the exoticness of the woman but I’m looking for the strength. Women play a major role in our society but often they’re the ones that don’t have the voice that’s needed.

In building the Water Life collection, a very contemporary interpretation, I have incorporated one of the most recognised symbols of women and water, the yellow jerrycan, and combined this with the traditional water carriers. These different symbols are a way of looking at the transportation of water, how water has an impact on women being educated, on health and on society. For example, if there isn’t water in schools then when women are menstruating they’re not able to attend school because there’s no water for them to manage their periods safely and well – with dignity. The colours I’ve used add another layer to this message; the red for example, I associate with life and birth.

There are so many components to these pieces and through them I’m addressing a multitude of topics through an Afrofuturist perspective. It’s been deep and challenging and a hugely personal and rewarding experience. I speak more about this in the film directed by Nowness, which will be screened at Somerset House in the autumn.

I’m at a stage in my life and career now where I want a purpose for my creativity outside of just hanging my work on white walls in galleries or museums. I want my work to have an impact outside of people just coming to see an exhibit.

Water Life was commissioned by WaterAid with support from the H&M Foundation and is on view at Somerset House, London, until 20 October 2019. It is also a special project running across 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair from 3 – 6 October

A film of Aïda Muluneh creating and shooting the images by Nowness, on view at Somerset House, is part of its Photographers in Focus series

Nataal is a media partner for 1-54. Read more about the art fair here

Visit WaterAid
Visit 1-54 London

Published on 25/09/2019