Wings that Soar, Aida Muluneh’s exhibition explores her selfhood as an Ethiopian woman and her broader African identity

The exhibition opens at David Krut Projects gallery on October 28,202110 AM – 5 PM, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg. Among the works on display at the exhibition is the original photograph that courted  controversy last week implicating  an Italian student artist who submitted ‘similar work’ to a major Italian photo festival without acknowledging the original creator.

By Edward Tsumele

When I viewed for the first time, Ethiopian born photographer Aida Muluneh’s art works a few years ago during the FNB Art Fair, when the artist was represented by David Krut Projects for the first time in South Africa, I immediately fell in love with her photography.

The artist has a way of making the subjects of her photography, not only look magnificent, dignified and calm, but what exudes out of the portraits also is the fact that there apparently exists the essential element of trust between the subject and the photographer in the process of making these images. It almost feels like a collaboration between the photographer and the subject.

Focusing mainly on female subjects, often dressed extremely stylishly, clearly Muluneh has found her voice within this genre of art, and there are certainly very few, If any other artist who has the ability and has mastered the technique to capture the subjects of their photography  in the manner  that Muluneh does in her portraits.

It is probably this very tempting uniqueness in the way that Muluneh captures and frames her subjects of investigation, that has put an Italian student in big trouble this week. The student, reportedly unknowingly and unintentionally, entered a photograph at a major Italian photograph festival that has a striking resemblance to that of the internationally reputed photographer, almost bordering on plagiarism.


The student photographer Andrea Sacchetti, seems to have failed resisting copying Muluneh’s iconic internationally well known photograph, and did not even bother to disclose, at least the fact that he may have been inspired by this iconic image.  The style is strikingly the same. Where in Muleneh’s image, the model is black, Sacchetti is white, but every thing else from there is exactly the same as the two images here indicate (Sacchetti’s image published here is courtesy of Inside Imaging publication).


If he did so, many would have forgiven him for that. This is because in many cases, writers, photographers, musicians, painters, broadcasters, journalists, the list goes on and on, …get inspired by those that came before them. All these artists, especially  at the beginning of their careers, as they look for their authentic voices in the field,  inevitably start off by mimicking the people who inspired them in the first place.

The issue here though is that Sacchetti, did not even reference Muluneh when she submitted the artwork to the Milan Photo Festival. If she did so, that could have solved her problems of being accused of plagiarism.

Sacchetti, is a student at Istituto Italiano di Fotografia, and just like Muluneh, was reportedly inspired by Dante Alighieri’s  titled Inferno, which also inspired Muluneh in her art practice.  Inferno (which is Italian for Hell) is the first part of Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy.

But according to the visual art publication Inside Imaging, Muluneh is furious about what the student has done.

“Muluneh isn’t happy about Sacchetti’s approach, believing he felt able to get away with it due to his ‘western’ privilege,” reported Inside Imaging and proceeded to  quote a statement the publication said was written by Muluneh  on her Facebook page, following this plagiarism scandal.
“They say imitation is a form of flattery, but plagiarism is an artistic violation. It has been brought to my attention that my work was copied by an Italian photographer who will be showcasing her work at the Milan photo festival. The problem that I have with of this level of plagiarism is not just about my work, but also about the unsettling feeling I have as it relates to “western” privilege in the sense that clearly the photographer figured that since I am based in Africa I would not come across the blatant plagiarism of my work and theme. Even worse is the question of how the festival and curator are/were unaware of my very visible work. All of this raises some deeper issues relating to the diversity of photography festivals outside of Africa. It is evident that in Africa not only must we face the challenges of being photographers in our countries but that also we must face obstacles beyond our borders as it relates to opportunities, or lack thereof. It is one thing to be inspired by the work that I create but another thing to choose to blatantly copy the full image from color and position, to gaze and composition. I will not unpack the fact that he appears to have used a white model, as I’m sure at this moment it goes without saying. There is so much to talk about, and what has taken place is much deeper than a stolen artistic expression, it is a testament that some things may have changed… but some things remain stuck in a colonial context,” Inside Imaging quoted Muluneh.‘

According to international reports, Milan Photo Festival has reportedly acknowledged the two photographs were identical, but denied that the student willingly and intentionally plagiarized the image or the idead, claiming that ‘there was no will to plagiarize against such a prestigious author and we know that the young photographer has already apologised to the author,” according to Inside Imaging.

The offending photograph CITYLIFE/ARTS understands, has therefore not been withdrawn from the festival.

However on a positive note, those who have followed Muluneh’s career in South Africa over the years, will be excited to know that the artist has a solo new exhibition comprising new works and works that have been previously exhibited in South Africa. The exhibition includes of course the iconic photograph that the Italian student allegedly copied and this one is the real deal, as it is the authentic one created by Muluneh, and which was first commissioned by Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in the US.

“Yes this image and other works from the same series will be on show in the exhibition,” said Britt Lawton  from David Krut Projects Gallery told CITYLIFE/ARTS when approached for confirmation on Tuesday, October 26, 2021.

“David Krut Arts is pleased to present a recent series of seven works by Ethiopian artist Aïda Muluneh Wings  that  Soar, together with a selection from three series previously exhibited in South Africa.

This exhibition presents selected works from Muluneh’s earliest three series – The 99 Series, The Wolf You Feed and The World is 9. These, together with the complete series of Wings that Soar, reflect the artist’s evolving imagery over the five years of our presenting her work,” her gallery revealed this week ahead of the opening of Wings that Soar on Thursday, October 28, 2021.

Muluneh’s works in colour were first exhibited in the groundbreaking 2014 exhibition The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists, curated by Simon Njami, at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington D.C according to her South African gallery.

Her first solo exhibition was at David Krut Projects in New York in 2015, and her works were introduced to South African collectors by David Krut gallery at the 2016 Joburg Art Fair.

This exhibition presents selected works from Muluneh’s earliest three series – The 99 Series, The Wolf You Feed and The World is 9.

These, together with the complete series of Wings that Soar reflect the artist’s evolving imagery over the five years of first presenting her work in South Africa.

Wings That Soar draws from the well-known poem by Emily Dickenson – Hope is the thing with feathers – which likens hope to a sweet unyielding songbird, suggesting that hope has the power to keep humanity moving forward despite adversity.

As an afro-futurist artist, Muluneh explores her own selfhood as an Ethiopian woman as well as her broader African identity in highly stylized, vivid photographs, rich with symbolism relating to her heritage.

Muluneh critically addresses the way in which Africa has been represented in photography in the past, and has provided a more informed view into issues relating to the African continent.

According to her gallery The 99 Series, which were included in the Divine Comedy exhibition, are an expression on what it is to be an African woman from Muluneh’s perspective.

The Wolf You Feed is an exploration of the inner and outer battles that people face; battles between good and evil, between the path we choose and the one that is chosen for us. The World is 9, Muluneh’s largest series of 29 works, reflects on questions of love, life and history, which have come about in the conflict between her memory of Ethiopia as a young child and the reality of returning many years later.

“I’m a woman, and I’m sharing my experience with the world. I can’t see myself doing that through a man’s body. I feel as though there’s a power in the gaze of the woman. Especially in Africa, women are our biggest assets. There’s an expression that if you teach something to a man, you teach one person, but if you teach something to a woman, you’re teaching the whole society.” – Aïda Muluneh From the 2018 article With Paint And A Camera, She’s Forging A New Artistic Vision Of Africa by Natalie Jacewicz.

“Our homelands are inside of us and when we return a more truthful experience merges. There Aïda is – floating through the city, the country with lens in hand. She sees our culture rich in contradictions. Contradictions rich in culture,”says well known UK based Ethiopian born authr, Lemn Sissay.

Muluneh founded the Addis Foto Fest in 2010 and continues to direct. The 6th edition is set for 2-6 December 2021.  Wings That Soar, and a selection of earlier works’ opens on Thursday 28, October, 2021, coinciding with FNB Art Joburg Open City, and the gallery will be open until 7pm.


.Wings that Soar opens at David Krut Projects gallery on October 28,202110 AM – 5 PM, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg.

.Acknowledgement: CITYLIFE/ARTS got additional information about Muluneh and the plagiarism allegations involving the Italian Student from Inside Imaging publication/

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