​Thandiwe Muriu Camo series
Photo Credit: Thandiwe Muriu

Thandiwe Muriu hones in on beauty and fashion, deconstructing these ideas with an African lens and developing a thematic vocabulary in the process.

Thandiwe Muriu uses bright colors and everyday items to pay homage to upbringing in Kenya.

In Thandiwe Muriu’s powerful photo series Camo, dark-skinned female models are the focus. They stand in front of a wall of colorful African print fabrics; the final results are dramatic, psychedelic vistas. The Kenyan photographer hones in on beauty and fashion, deconstructing these ideas with an African lens and developing a thematic vocabulary in the process.

“I want my models to blend into the background even as they stand out,” Muriu said. “It’s a little ironic.”

In this visual landscape, Muriu curates beauty how she sees fit. From hairstyles in long twists, spirals and other eccentric shapes that pays homage to her Kenyan heritage.

\u200bThandiwe Muriu Camo 33

Thandiwe Muriu's piece Camo 33

Photo Credit: Thandiwe Muriu

She’s showcased numerous photographic installations and exhibitions in international spaces like Photo London Fair and Art Monte Carlo. Her solo show Colors of Thandiwe, which was showing at the Maison Kitsuné in New York, just ended recently. She’s also being presented in Venice by 193 Gallery.

\u200bThandiwe Muriu Camo 08

Thandiwe Muriu's piece Camo 08

Photo Credit: Thandiwe Muriu

Convinced that she was naturally inclined towards art, her foray into photography started at 14-years-old when her father taught her and her sisters how to use digital cameras. She drew inspiration from the glossy Vogue magazines her elder sister collected, wanting to create pictures like the ones she saw on the covers.

“I convinced both my sisters to model for me, using bedsheets as the background to create all these elaborate shoots,” Muriu said. “For the lighting, I used foil paper as a reflector. I wonder if my mother ever figured where all her foil paper went.”

Facebook is where Muriu first got public exposure. When someone saw the pictures she posted on the platform and asked her how much she would charge for a photo session, it dawned on her that she could forge a career path with photography.

She had a steady stream of small clients and enough savings to buy her first camera. But much conviction came after university when she had to consider job offers. Her father reminded her about her love for photography. “It’s as if a lightbulb went off in my head and I was free at last to finally pursue my passion.” Muriu said.

She went from shooting portraits to commercial events and then ended up in commercial advertising photography, which she’s doing till this day. In between this time, she launched a YouTube channel about photography, a generous attempt to share her knowledge with others.

For the most part, Muriu’s creative aesthetic is informed by her own personal struggle with beauty — her hair, skin, and identity as a modern Kenyan woman. In a world eroded by Eurocentric ideals of what it means to be beautiful, she wanted to celebrate herself and affirm other women that shared similar struggles. Her choice of dark skin models was to directly challenge skin bleaching practices in Kenya

Her Camo series is sprightly in its character and sleek in its execution. A strong manifesto on the themes Muriu cared for, Camo is short for camouflage. “It’s titled that way because of how the subject of each image camouflages into the background,” Muriu said. “It’s a commentary on how as individuals, we can lose ourselves to the expectations culture has on us. Yet, there are unique and beautiful things about every individual.”

Further, the photographic series attempts to counter-balance age-old notions of Africa. The result is complex and quirky. “Poverty can easily distract from all the beauty and richness of cultures in Africa. There are beautiful stories and people here. I’m so proud to come from this continent,” Muriu says. “To me, being African means being colorful and full of life.”

The use of African textiles became a recurring theme over time, as well as everyday objects used as accessories on models. Kenyans are resourceful people, in that objects can be used for more than their intended purpose. Plastic handheld mirrors are used not only to look at oneself, but also as side-mirrors on a bicycle weaving through traffic or even as decorative clothing accessories on a Maasai warrior. With this in mind, Muriu repurposed items around her into wearable art.

In Camo 2.0 4452, she uses plastic hair combs to form a crown on a model’s head. These combs are generally used for everyday grooming here in Kenya by both men and women. The eyewear in Camo 08 is made from hair pins often found at the hair stalls in distinct red and yellow fan-shaped boulders. These boulders have remained unchanged since the ‘80’s. Camo 29 uses mosquito coils and Camo 33 sprockets reminiscent of those found on the popular Kenyan bicycle brand Black Mamba. The bottle cap hair in Camo 11 is directly inspired by how sodas (soft drinks) tie into her own culture.

“In the Kikuyu tribe, when a girl is getting married, sodas are used as part of the dowry negotiation process,” she said. “If the bride-to-be consents to the marriages, she pours a soda for the in-laws when her fiancé comes formally to ask for her hand. The soda is almost always the traditional glass bottles as opposed to cans or plastic bottles.”

Thandiwe Muriu Camo 11

Thandiwe Muriu's piece Camo 11

Photo Credit: Thandiwe Muriu

Storytelling is weaved into Muriu’s work through fashion. She loves how her imagination can be a fuel for creativity as models pose using clothes, props, mood and lighting. Out of all her works, Camo remains her favorite because it gave her a deep appreciation of her culture in a way she’s never had before.

"The objects I use in my work are items I interact with as a Kenyan. They were used throughout my childhood. For most Kenyans, objects are an integral part of our daily lives and are often a big component of beauty culture. “

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