JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival digital photographs (no further detail on the printing process was available) from the series Wings That Soar, made in 2019. Each print is sized roughly 31×31 inches (80×80 cm), and is available in an edition of 7.
The show also includes two works from the artist’s earlier series Mirror of the Soul. These prints were also made in 2019, and have the same dimensions and details as those above.
(Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: We often talk about the hard work that photographers invest in developing a unique voice, one that not only allows them to communicate (or at least wrestle with) what is important to them, but also evolves into a set of aesthetics that reflect that vision. When a photographer decides to turn inward, to use photography to investigate any number of invisible emotions, thoughts, memories, or moods, the creative challenge is even harder, as those ideas need to find physical form in some manner so that the camera can record them.
In the past decade, Aïda Muluneh has boldly experimented with bright color, graphic backdrops, models with painted faces, and other staged setups, slowly building up her own signature aesthetic, one that is now instantly recognizable. Her works consistently employ a pared down simplicity of gesture and pose that allows the rest of the elements in the composition to help tell the story, leading to poetic images that alternately feel allegorical, surreal, dream-like, and tightly symbolic.
Her various series have drawn from a range of sources of inspiration, from her Ethiopian heritage to deeper questions of memory, history, sorrow, and suffering, and her work was featured in Being: 2018 New Photography at MoMA, becoming more well known in recent years as new voices in African photography have gained wider attention. This show centers on a new body of work, titled Wings That Soar, that takes its inspiration from an Emily Dickinson poem, and seeks to discover moments of human hope in an increasingly threatened world.
Several of the images from the series use the monotonous white emptiness of salt flats as their setting, almost as though Muluneh has fast forwarded to a future made barren and silent by climate apocalypse. With earth and sky both set in muted tones, her models (some of whom have been doubled or tripled) and their props appear even more vibrant and otherworldly. In one image, three white faced women (all the same model) in yellow gowns and blue turbans carry oversized air mail envelopes on long poles, perhaps bringing messages in a procession against the strength of the wind. In two others, painted backdrops have been set up, where women in red gowns alternately pose with hovering light and dark clouds and with moon phases and a telescoping view of the same model standing in a black boat. The multiplication of figures seems to imply variations of self, or of time and perception that have been altered to accommodate unexpected overlaps and elemental simultaneity. And while they are often executed in playful colors and offer fanciful scenes, Muluneh’s images always stay deadpan serious, her dreams laced with a vein of simmering intensity.
The other works in the series move back inside, cropping the scenes down to studio vignettes staged with extra sharp painted backgrounds (or digital stand-ins). In one work, two women (the same woman twice) in flowing robes and turbans in blue and pink seem to guard against the encroachment of grasping octopus arms, their canes crossed like a protective barrier against the wild intrusion. In another, a Black Jesus painting seems to watch over a single woman, with an incongruous wired telephone sitting nearby on a small stool, perhaps waiting to communicate something from the beyond. And in a third two-image pair, a woman in a yellow robe seems to call to a hovering donut-shaped cloud using a white horn, which then seems to open up a cocoon from which she perplexingly emerges. The story is always open-ended and uncertain in these works, leaving room for possible interpretations and further expressive imaginings.
In many ways, what Muluneh is doing aesthetically is pulling photography back toward painting, leveraging digital tools and techniques to make photography more malleable, and then using that flexibility to craft compositions that match her stylized vision.
But beyond this image-crafting innovation, much of the propulsive strength in her work lies in her overt choice to center on powerful women, who have neither been exoticized or sexualized, but simply exude an unquestioned confidence, regardless of the circumstances. There is often a feeling of inexplicable magic or whimsy in the air, but it is the women who ultimately lead the action and respond. It is this embodiment of quiet ferocity and force that stands out, and will ultimately give these images their durability.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $6000 and $20000, based on the place in the edition. Muluneh’s work has little consistent secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.