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The Africa Institute of Sharjah
Even in times of pandemics, art does not stop. Homebound: A Journey in Photography is a project presented by The Africa Institute that had to deal with the sudden and forced closure of museums. Today we will give space on paper to this magnificent story of resistance and courage, hoping that it will remain a while in your eyes too, until it will come down in your heart, to remember it.
Sharjah | UAE
23.9.2020 words by Giulia Celegon

The world has had and faced a pandemic. It looked like the beginning of an apocalyptic American film, but sadly it wasn’t. And in the face of this terrible event, we stopped, letting the world continue to spin without our multiplied and infinite steps, and we had to protect ourselves.
But we haven’t stopped looking for beauty. So we chatted remotely with Sataan Al-Hassan, Head of Programming & Research at the Africa Institute of Sharjah, and he presented us “Homebound: A Journey in Photography”

This is a project that deserves to be known: it chronicles Aida Muluneh’s journey as an artist and a photojournalist, and her multiple contributions to imaging and image-making in photographic-based works since her return to her homeland Ethiopia in 2007, after years of living, studying and practicing in North America. The exhibition, divided into two parts (the second part, Addis Foto Fest: Nine Years Survey, reflecting on her journey as a founder and director of Addis Foto Fest (AFF)), wants to represent several important themes, from history to politics, from identity to home, without neglecting the current environmental and climate crisis. The figural compositions overall are executed in bold colours and are set against a vastly flat background, and they relate to the Ethiopian and Pan-African visual cultures and symbols. Surely you cannot remain indifferent before Muluneh’s earlier photojournalistic work for the American daily newspaper The Washington Post, that accompanies the exhibition and strikes for the incredible close-up portraiture, combined by her with innovative use of wide lenses.
But unfortunately, it is an exhibition that, due to the pandemic, it was not initially possible to physically visit:

“The installation work for the exhibit Homebound: A Journey in Photography was finalized just before the beginning of the lockdown in Sharjah. As the pandemic spread, we were faced by the fact that visitors will be prevented from experiencing the show in person, yet the lockdown also allowed us to present the exhibition to a far-reaching audience that is unbound by border limitations, as such it was natural for us to host the exhibit virtually before doors were opened to the public again.”

So it is also interesting to point out an Artist Talk that The Africa Institute arranged between Aïda Muluneh and its director, Salah M. Hassan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8qzkMncrWo&t=68s.

Homebound: A Journey in Photography is just one of the many projects belonging to The Africa Institute, whose president is Hoor Al Qasimi.
The Africa Institute, whose original hall building was inaugurated on the same day as the old Municipality’s one in 1976 (the year of the first “African and Arab Relations” symposium), is an interdisciplinary academic research institute dedicated to the study, research, documentation and teaching of Africa, and its diaspora in the humanities and social sciences.
It is located in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) and it is conceived as a research-based think tank and a postgraduate studies institution; it has been decreed on June 6th 2018, although the idea of the Africa institute as a centre for African and African Diaspora studies dates back to 1976; even if its history begins six years earlier when the original buildings of Africa Hall and Municipality were built in the early as part of a wave of government modernist buildings of the time, the laudable purposes that distinguish it have always been the same: to represent African and African Diaspora Studies in Africa, Europe, and North America, and to address a major paradox that marks the historical and contemporary relationships between Africa and the Arab Gulf region.

The outreach programming at the Africa Institute organizes conferences, symposia, lectures, film screenings and staged plays for the larger community of Sharjah, UAE and beyond: for example, it features a collaboration with London Royal College of Art, with whom it recently proposed film screenings in the presence of filmmakers themselves, coming from Egypt or the United States of America.
For The Africa Institute, one of the most important things is the organization of scholarly, cultural and artistic activities in various media and genres that focus on one country from the African continent: one thinks of screening of Difret (Zeresenay Mehari, 2015), a film based on the true story and fight of Hirut Assefa, a young Ethiopian girl, and Meaza, her lawyer, against the unfair death sentence for Hirut, or of the concert of Mohammed El Amin, a musician who comes from Sudan. Through such series, The Africa Institute aims to bring to the fore the complex history of the continent, its peoples, cultures and civilizations on a global scale.
It’s right to repeat that The Africa Institute doesn’t betray its civil and social commitment even in times of pandemics:

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of our programming migrated online. For the upcoming Fall season, we plan to resume the remainder of the Ethiopia Country-Focused Season which launched in Fall of 2019, and which Aïda Muluneh’s Homecoming: A Journey in Photography exhibition is a part of. In addition to the Ethiopia Country-Focused Season, we have started brainstorming a series of film screenings and panel discussions.”

So like many other institutions and museums, The Africa Institute will continue with its online programming to avoid congregations and the spread of COVID-19, for the health and safety of its employees and visitors. It is not known when the next events and exhibitions will be organized, even if the Sharjah Art Museum has opened its doors to visitors who would like to view Homebound: A Journey in Photography. Yet, beyond what the current pandemic forces to give up, art does not set and neither The Africa Institute, which continues to be a point of reference for African culture and a crossroads of roads, stories, cultures, a treasure chest of life.