This Ethiopian Photographer Confronts The Complex Relationship Between Identity And Race In Her MOMA Exhibition

Aïda Muluneh uses her imagery to challenge the media's traditional depiction of the African diaspora.


Aïda Muluneh knows a thing or two about feeling like an outsider in her home country. Born in Ethiopia, but having lived in various countries around the world, Muluneh has long used photography to convey her complex relationship with identity, race, and belonging. A self-proclaimed nomad, Muluneh projects in her work the disconnect with one’s own culture that many other third-culture kids experience growing up.

But it doesn’t end there. While initially spending the first few years of her career as a photojournalist for major news publications including The Washington Post, Muluneh eventually became skeptical of the media’s portrayal of black people. In an essay she wrote for The Washington Post, Muluneh admits, “It dawned on me how the supposedly neutral form of photography was a tool that had helped perpetuate stereotypical images of black people globally and erased a complex past and future.

Thus, she began to use her own photography as a means to challenge the media’s traditional depiction of the African diaspora. Her subjects- mostly black women- are photographed donning face paint inspired by traditional African tribal make-up. The juxtaposition of the white paint against the subject’s dark skin, photographed against brightly colored hues of blues and yellows, give a striking effect that immediately catches the viewer’s eyes.

Her critically-acclaimed series, “The World Is 9”, is now on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The title of the series was taken from a saying Muluneh grandmother would repeat; “The world is 9; it is never complete and it’s never perfect.“

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