“This looking back took on real meaning against our diminished status in Europe and Canada. It became concrete. Our memories became more real. I am from somewhere with more integrity. It became solid. Somewhere I am loved. Somewhere with humanity and history.”
INTERVIEW: LEMN SISSEY
PHOTOGRAPHY / ART: AIDA MULUNEH
Dark. Light. Dark. Light. In darkness I ask “Where is the light”? In light I ask “Why was it dark”? The irresistible urge to question is the artist’s way. My first name Lemn means why in my mother’s tongue. There is great beauty in the world. But if the world were without question there would be no beauty. If people were perfect there would be no need for personality or God. Without the grit no pearl. Imperfection is the grit of beauty.
Like a photographer looking back at the shots she missed, Aida and I (like many returnees) were separated from our homeland in our early years. We looked back. In the separation we experienced an unstoppable search for light. In Aida’s case she looked back to the Ethiopia remembered in her first five years. In my case I looked back to the first few months of my life in my Ethiopian mother’s arms.
This looking back took on real meaning against our diminished status in Europe and Canada. It became concrete. Our memories became more real. I am from somewhere with more integrity. It became solid. Somewhere I am loved. Somewhere with humanity and history.
This is the hallucination in the desert of diaspora. It drives some people crazy. I’ll never forget the black man in the city rocking back and forth. He was Jamaican. “I love classical music I love classical music I love classical music”, he repeated. He was trying to throw off the stereotype and cling to what his heart loved amongst the pressure to be something, to be someone.
Finally we return. And we realize that returning is not easy. We had imagined a world that wasn’t there. We realize that all people are returning from one place to another, many of us with false expectations. Life is a constant process of separating and coming together. But as we realized that our dream was not the reality, we had identified the grit. The world is nine and not a perfect ten.
We shed as much as we grow, we lose as much as we gain. We who are insatiable about knowing must be at peace with not knowing. And allow the colour, texture, sound and smells to fill us and tell us their own story. Our homelands are inside of us and when we return a more truthful experience merges. There she is, Aida floating through the city, the country with lens in hand. She sees our culture rich in contradictions. Contradictions rich in culture.
And now the beauty, the true beauty shines through. Aida has shot me many times in the years. I feel lucky. She takes colour. She takes light from the edge of shadows and shows Ethiopia in a new light, a stronger light. She is representative of the new Ethiopian tidal wave of young fierce artists unafraid to translate the Ethiopian experience through abstract imagery. Our great artist Gebre Kristos Desta was the same. Unafraid.
Her own work and her work in supporting young photographers in Ethiopia has launched many a career. Her exhibits all over Africa and the world continue to astound me. It was Toni Morrison who said “all paradises, all Utopias are designed by those who are not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Aida, the outsider within. The renegade spirit.
“The World is 9” / Aida Muluneh
Living in Addis Ababa for the past nine years has been a lesson; a lesson in humility, and a lesson in what it means to return to a land that was foreign to me. Within the past nine years, an expression of my grandmother’s has stuck in my mind. She would say, “The world is 9, it is never complete and it’s never perfect”.
I thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t until much later as an adult that her voice echoed in my thoughts of whether we can live in this world with full contentment; this world where we are idealists seeking perfection but living in a reality which does not afford us that balance. Because life is unpredictable, and imperfect, we must conquer these challenges with strength and endurance; because the world within us and the world knocking at our doorstep bear the unknown future.
Regardless, through these experiences, I have been inspired to create 28 new pieces of work. Each image is an exploration of questions about life, love, and history. I am not seeking answers but asking, hopefully provocative, questions about the life that we live – as people, as nations, as beings. I have chosen to continue working on body painting, which is inspired by the traditional body art from across Africa. Each piece is a reflection of both conscious and sub-conscious manifestations of time and space.