Fabric of Life

WORDS Dumisani Mnisi PHOTOS Thandiwe Muriu

Kenyan-born photographer Thandiwe Muriu tells the story of African identity, beauty and individualism through her work – and her new book, Camo.

I wanted to celebrate everything that I had struggled with in my own beauty journey – my hair, my skin, my identity as a modern woman in a traditional culture,” says photographer Thandiwe Muriu about her debut photo book Camo.

Through saturated portraits that create a surreal illusion between the subject and the background, Thandiwe aims to confront issues surrounding identity and self-perception while unfolding a new perspective on the empowerment of women. “I didn’t plan for the series to be exclusively about women, but it was a natural starting point for me,” she says.

Thandiwe Muriu Camo book cover

Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, Thandiwe’s connection with photography started at a young age. By 23, she was working professionally, shooting campaigns for prominent companies in East Africa. The complexities of being a woman in a male-dominated industry led her to interrogate the role of women in society and the place of tradition, questioning her own self-perception. These experiences fuelled the Camo series, allowing her to explore a photographic language while interacting with her culture in new ways.

Camo began as a simple appreciation for African fabrics, but quickly led Thandiwe to explore and study in depth what connotes African beauty – particularly hair, clothing and accessories. It has resulted in a visual art book that pays homage to the techniques and mastery in African hairstyles while reconstructing everyday items as accessories. These include using hairpins and dish scrubs to create a pair of sunglasses, or Afro combs as hair accessories. “The objects I use are items I interact with every day as a Kenyan,” says Thandiwe. “They are an integral part of our daily lives, and often a big component of beauty culture.”

There is a systemic process to creating a Camo artwork. It starts with Ankara fabric, which is made using a wax-resist dye technique (similar to batik). The striking colours and patterns on the fabric are used for both the background and the outfit, creating a camouflage effect whereby the subject blends into the background. Thandiwe collaborates with dressmakers in Nairobi to stitch the outfits.

Designing (and creating) the accessories is the next step. “This is the most enjoyable part of the creative process – it requires me to see ordinary objects as the foundation for exciting fashion accessories,” Thandiwe says. She also collaborates with hairdressers to create hair artistry through braiding and weaving.

“When all the elements are finally ready, I bring them together on one subject, in one photograph, to become part of the mesmerising Camo series,” she says.

Thandiwe pairs each image with a proverb or words of wisdom that have been passed down through generations in African cultures. Her use of traditional proverbs creates interconnectedness between the old and the new. “It’s an opportunity for people to begin to think about and hear our proverbs in a new and exciting way,” she says.

Through this photo series, Thandiwe hopes that a younger generation will develop a fresh appreciation for the past – and that the traditional elements within the series will result in interactions and conversations about the history of African beauty and culture, and how they have evolved through time. | thandiwemuriu.com

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