Water Life by Aïda Muluneh at the Somerset House

Water Life by Aïda Muluneh is a photography project created for the WaterAid now on display at the Somerset House, London. The series consists of twelve large-scale photographs and is accompanied by a short film from the series Photographers in Focus directed by Adeyemi Michael featuring Aïda Muluneh, who shares her thoughts about the WaterAid commission.

Aïda Muluneh was born in Ethiopia in 1974. Having lived abroad for a number of years since childhood (in Yemen, UK, Cyprus, Canada and USA), she returned to her country of birth where she is currently based. Muluneh is one of the leading African photographers. She has worked as photojournalist and a commercial photographer, and is a keen promoter of photography. Her most interesting works are her art series. The narrative is driven by mostly solitary human figures whose faces and bodies are painted. They are usually women. What stands out immediately is the coordinated colours. In the 99 Series (2013) the only colours are black and white, which merge into gray, and red, the colour symbolism of this series relates to African history and identity. The World is 9 (a series of female portraits created in 2016, nine years after Muluneh’s return to Ethiopia) has a wider spectrum of colours, predominantly red, yellow and blue, and titles with multiple meanings, such as The Outsider Inside, or Rules of Engagement. The artist champions the art of photography on a global scale, she was a juror in several prestigious photography competitions (including World Press Photo Contest 2017). She is the founder and director of the Addis Foto Fest (AFF). [1]

aida muluneh Water Life installation view
General view of Water Life (2019) by Aida Muluneh (top row left – Idle whims, right – Access, bottom row left – Star shine, moon glow, right – Unfilled Promises 

In the Water Life series the body painting, which is encountered across Africa, symbolise erasure, but also the need to move forward. The photographs are carefully staged. Using predominantly saturated primary colours for clothing and everyday objects such as yellow jerry cans, coffee pots and water jugs, the artist is then able to create striking images. Each scene could be a still from a futuristic film.

Each composition in Water Life series is constructed from three or four contrasting colours. The absence of the colour green is significant. Green rarely appears in Muluneh’s other works. Without water there is no greenery, no life. Red, blue and yellow contrasted with black and white capture the attention and create the illusion of a sterilised and artificial world.

aida muluneh Knowing the way to tomorrow
Aida Muluneh – Knowing the way to tomorrow (2019) 

Moonlike, bare, rocky landscapes illustrate what is a part of a larger problem when it comes to saving water globally. We often think that water scarcity happens somewhere else, that it does not affect us personally. In Knowing the way to tomorrow two women are perched on top of a rocky outcrop. The one wearing a red dress sits resigned on the ground with a white water jar strapped to her back. The figure in the centre, dressed in blue, holds onto a rope to which several yellow jerry cans are attached, she points outside of the frame with her hand, showing the way.

At the core of this project is the role of women, who are traditionally the ones responsible for providing water to their households. The task of transporting this essential resource lies chiefly on female shoulders in many communities affected by water shortages and the titles refer to these issues, for example A woman’s work, or Burden of the day.

aida muluneh Mirage of Privilege
Aida Muluneh – Mirage of privilege (2019)

The photographs featuring stark and otherworldly landscapes were shot on location in  the Danakil Depression (in the Afar District of Ethiopia), known as one of the hottest and driest places on earth. Collage-like photographs taken in the studio incorporate water meters, a labyrinth of water pipes or empty bottles. The dotted lines appearing on models’ painted faces also appear on bottles and jugs. Resembling water drops, this simple decorative pattern symbolizes decreasing water levels (functioning similarly to low battery bars on electronic devices). Just as the water meters resemble clocks, the dots also show that the clock is ticking, and water, the most precious resource in the world, is becoming scarcer.

And then there is a paradox. Although today we have almost unlimited access to information, we need constant reminders of problems that are not new, such as the issues relating to climate or human rights across the world. We have become so desensitised and unaffected, that the more we are reminded of certain things the more normalised they become. Muluneh presenting Water Life wants to remind us yet again about our planet’s most precious asset, but also motivate us to think about the way to tomorrow.

Water Life by Aïda Muluneh is a free exhibition at the Somerset House, London. It runs until 20 October 2019.


Sources and further reading:

[1] https://www.aidamuluneh.com/bio

Artist’s website https://www.aidamuluneh.com/bio

Exhibition website https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/water-life-aida-muluneh

See the episode of Photographers in Focus featuring Aïda Muluneh, directed by Adeyemi Michael and created for NOWNESS culture video platform: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDSIVh7cs3k


Disclaimer: Photos of the exhibition used in this post are by Ground Impressions


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