This Artwork Changed My Life: Aïda Muluneh’s “Knowing The Way To Tomorrow”
Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.
Out today on Elephant is Emily Steer on Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin’s, Deep Inside My Heart.
The acclaimed photographer Aïda Muluneh has been using her vibrant photographic lens to challenge visual narratives about the African continent. After a long stay in the diaspora, she finally settled in her native Ethiopia in 2007. In the time since, she has been able to explore the country’s social issues with the attention and clarity they deserve. It is within this context that her piece Knowing The Way To Tomorrow (2018), part of the “Water Life” series, was born.
In the photograph, Muluneh boldly captures two women. One wears a white head wrap and a long, princessly blue dress; she pulls jerry cans linked together with a rope up a rocky mound, while facing the opposite direction, looking and pointing forward. The second woman, with a blue head wrap and bright red dress, is sitting on the slope of the same desert rock, carrying a vessel on her back.
I encountered this piece twice, virtually, purely coincidentally. The first time, a friend staying in London—who knew about my obsession with Muluneh’s work—sent me the image after seeing it at Somerset House as part of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in 2019. I saw it again more recently, in the exhibition “Homebound: A Journey in Photography” at the Sharjah Art Museum, which was presented online due to COVID-19 and in collaboration with The Africa Institute and the Sharjah Museums Authority.
Why did this particular piece and artist catch my attention? Growing up as an Africa-based art enthusiast, I learned that representation in the art industry really matters. During a time of racial polarization and tensions, this piece and this artist gave me hope. Muluneh represents a new generation of well-known artists of African descent who are using their work to challenge stereotypical narratives about Africa through Afrofuturist tableaux. In this particular body of work, she chose to explore the theme of water scarcity, without the clichés we see in mainstream media. I see myself and my belief system in Muluneh’s work.
In Knowing The Way To Tomorrow, I see an ode to the rural women who play a significant role in their African communities to collect clean water for their families amidst the insurmountable challenges they have to face on a daily basis. Muluneh celebrates their unending desire to keep life going; the vessels symbolize their dedication to “giving life,” a notion that has always been linked to women.
The piece also resonates with me as access to clean, sustainable water is a privilege in rural communities in my home country, Uganda. I grew up in a distant town, many kilometers out of the city center, and this has been my lived experience. Water scarcity is a glaring reality that I was subject to and one that we must confront with the attention it deserves. Knowing The Way To Tomorrow is advocating for just that, for access to clean water in my community.
The women of the image speak to me on a deeper level, too. While one woman is standing at the peak of the hill, the other sits on the downward slope, seemingly tired and frustrated; one hopeful, the other hopeless. Not that I have achieved my greatest desires, but just like the characters in the piece, I’m still on the journey, carrying my empty jerry cans, hoping against hope to get “water” someday.
As a Black person, in light of the recent global events of the Black Lives Matter campaign, including protests in demand for justice over George Floyd’s tragic death, I’ve been seeking refuge in Muluneh’s work. Her breathtakingly vibrant subjects encourage us to unapologetically embrace our identities. She advocates for a society where everyone has access to equal opportunity.
Knowing The Way To Tomorrow has become an obsession for me. It’s a reminder that there’s hope; an ode to the brave humans who are putting their best feet forward to make this world better. It’s a celebration of bravery and boldness to conquer the things that seem impossible; a clarion call for reevaluating our priorities in the face of the society we want to live in.
Correction: the article initially misstated the name of the exhibition, “Homebound: A Journey in Photography.” The article has been updated to accurately reflect the title of the exhibition and to expand upon details relating to the show.