Thandiwe Muriu is a photographer from Kenya. With her images she wants to celebrate the beauty of the African woman by focusing on what makes them so beautiful and unique. Thandiwe's photographs are real works of art.
Camo 4415 playfully show a rainbow of dotted delight along the fringe of the model's hair. Beads are a big part of adornment in Africa and there is a rich history of wearing beads for both beauty and to symbolise messages of status, age group and so forth to the larger community in one glance-without speaking a word
HOW WAS YOUR PASSION FOR PHOTOGRAPHY BORN?
My journey began at 14yrs when my father taught my sisters and I how to use digital cameras. I like to say before then that I had all this art inside of me that was looking for an outlet but hadn’t found one yet. I couldn’t really draw or paint, but right from my first interaction with the camera I knew there was a connection between photography and I.
Every day after school I would rush home and finish my homework so I could photograph clouds, flowers and anything I could get my hands before the light faded. My father had all these old photography magazines that I would pour over during the weekends. I was hungry to learn anything and everything about photography!
CHILD'S PLAY 2
The yellow brim of Child's Play 2 is actually the lid of a plastic clothing hamper. These hampers have a distinct finish made by a local Kenyan factory, and are sold at any and all supermarkets within Kenya. As a child, the artist would play hide-and-seek and sometimes curled up inside the large sized laundry basket to avoid being "found". More grown up now, the Artist took a hamper lid and repurposed it as a Vogue-worthy statement hat within a small enclosed space for Child's Play 2. The image is titled quite appropriately, as it is part of a series where Thandiwe explores the toys and games she played with growing up
My elder sister used to collect Vogue magazines and over time I developed an interest in wanting to create pictures like the ones I saw on the covers- these magical, flawless images… I convinced both my sisters to model for me, using bedsheets as the background to create all these elaborate shoots. For lighting, I used foil paper as a reflector (I wonder if my mother ever figured out where all her foil paper went!).
After ever shoot, I would put the pictures up on Facebook and about a year later somebody inboxed me and asked me how much I would charge for a photo session. I thought “Wow! You mean I can get paid to do this?” At this point I had no idea photography could be a career path and I was over the moon I could get paid to do what I loved! And that’s how my career began.
By the time I was in university, I had a steady stream of small clients and enough savings to buy my first camera. I graduated from university with a degree in Marketing and felt pressure to consider the job offers I received. After watching me struggle to make up my mind, my father told me,
“You love doing photography. Why would you consider doing anything else?”
Until that moment, I had never considered photography as a career path (incredible, I know). It’s as if a lightbulb went off in my head and I was free at last to fully pursue my passion. I moved from shooting portraits, over time, to corporate events, and then eventually ended up in commercial advertising photography which is where I am today.
This work was presented for the first time at the Amsterdam unseen artfair. It plays on a voluntary hyperoptimist and on a very marked erasure of the body, contrasting with the power of the frontal and absorbing stair of the model. We can see here a strong feminine figure that can be seen as a reference to Medusa, a very powerful antique female character. The accessories in the hair are made from toy fists. Thandiwe plays here with a strong ambivalence air culture present in her work: on one hand a certain and marked commitment for the cause of the African woman and her culture, and on the other hand a spirit full of humor and lightness.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO COMMUNICATE TO YOUR AUDIENCE WITH YOUR ARTWORKS?
My personal work began as a way to celebrate the beauty of the African woman through the fabrics she wears. However, I quickly realized there is so much more depth and breadth to our beauty. If I speak of beauty, I need to focus on more than what we wear or how we look and explore who we are and how that makes us uniquely beautiful.
In my images, the prints act as the backdrop that I can celebrate my culture on. Beyond this however, they also have a deeper, hidden meaning. The series is titled Camo because of how the subject of each image camouflages into the background. It’s a commentary on how many times we can lose ourselves in our culture/ community/ self-image and yet there are such unique and beautiful things about every individual. It’s a little ironic- I want my models to blend into the background even as they stand out.
YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY IS INSPIRED BY YOUR KENYAN ORIGINS, YOUR PICS ARE HYPNOTIC: ONCE YOU SEE THEM YOU CANNOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF. IS THERE A PARTICULAR MEANING BEHIND EVERY IMAGE? I MEAN, HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE COMBINATION OF COLOURS WITH THE POSE OF THE MODEL?
Colour has always been something I enjoy and has become integral to my work. When I create images, I’m always looking for colour combinations that are bold and exciting. I then work with the subjects of my images to pose in ways that will bring out the character of the particular print I’m photographing.
The objects I use in my work are items I interact with everyday as a Kenyan. They were used all through my childhood and my mother (and probably even my grandmother) interacted with them often throughout their lives. Objects are an integral part of our daily lives and are often a big component of beauty culture. I’ve used bottle tops, plastic combs, sieves, straws and even bottle cleaning brushes.
An everyday item becomes a power woman's enhansement in Camo 32. Thandiwe Muriu turned the humble steel wool scouring pad into statement green aviators for her high necked domina. Steel wool is found in every homestead in Kenya because it efficiently scrubs the commonly used Sufuria (Swahili for an "aluminium cooking pot") to shining perfection. The Artist has many childhood memories of taking her turn to wash the dishes, using steel wool to quickly scour the sufurias used to cook that day's family meal.
Kenyans are very resourceful people and one of the most common things I see is objects being used for more than their intended purpose. Plastic handheld mirrors are used not only to look at ones self, but also as side-mirrors on a bicycle weaving through traffic or even as decorative clothing accessories on a Maasai warrior! This inspired me to create fashionable accessories from the items found in almost every shop here.
The eyewear in CAMO 08 is made from hair pins often found at the hair stalls in distinct red and yellow fan-shaped holders. Those holders have remained unchanged since the 80’s.
The eyewear in CAMO 14 is drinking straws. As a child, straws were the source of countless hours of fun for me. Half the joy in getting a soda (soft drink) was having a straw to play with at the end They were drinking devices, snorkeling tubes and fashionable bracelets all rolled into one.
The bottle cap hair in CAMO 11 is directly inspired by how sodas (soft drinks) tie into my own culture. In the Kikuyu tribe, when a girl is getting married, sodas are used as part of the dowry negotiation process. 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.
THE SUBJECTS OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS ARE ALWAYS WOMEN. IN YOUR OPINION HOW CAN ART HELP WOMEN TO BE MORE FREE AND EMANCIPATED IN A WORLD FULL OF PREJUDICES?
Art presents the opportunity to create discussion around the things that women struggle with in our daily lives. It can express through images the things we find difficult to speak about.
IN 2020 YOU WERE AWARDED WITH PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD FOR EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR AT PHOTO LONDON. WHAT DOES THIS AWARD MEAN TO YOU?
It was such an honour to receive this award. It meant that my message was resonating with other people around the world. The award gave me renewed energy to keep exploring themes that are meaningful to me as an artist.
At first glance, the monacle of Camo 20 seems to be a bespoke accent to a swirling pink story, but in truth it is made from the unglamorous simple clothing hanger. Found in the average wardrobe of the hard working Kenyan wire hangers are used not only to hang clothing but also as props, hooks, interim TV antenna, latches and so on. It was only fitting that this Camo image took the multi-use metal strip and interprated it into a new eye catching detail for the viewer to get hung on.
WHEN YOU ARE WORKING ON A NEW PROJECT, DO YOU FOLLOW ANY PARTICULAR INSPIRATION?
I have multiple sources of inspiration, but many times it is showing some aspect of my daily life as a Kenyan woman. I am also inspired by our history and how it shapes culture today.
In Kenya tinsel is a key part of any heartfelt celebration, moving beyond drape on a Christmas tree into the everyday lives of Kenyans. Often used to bedeck a successful student at their graduation ceremony or gleefully thrown over a returning family member's neck when they travel back from overseas study, tinsel loudly adds to the joy and warmth of any good party. The shining, festive eyewear of Camo 28 is a Happy New Year party mixed with an expolsive couffure and an added dash of riotous swirls of yellow, the image topped off with the Artists crackling, bursting pink eyewear.
LOOKING AT YOUR INSTAGRAM PROFILE, I DISCOVERED SOME BEAUTIFUL AFRICAN PROVERBS! WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE? THE ONE THAT REPRESENTS YOU THE MOST? AND WHY?
We have such beautiful proverbs! At the moment, my favourite proverb is "A beautiful thing is never perfect." It reminds me to find beauty even in life’s moments that may be less than ideal. If I choose to see it, there is always beauty in every moment- a good reminder in the difficult times of Covid-19!
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Images provided by Thandiwe Muriu