Starting her love affair with photography at just 14 years old, Kenyan-born photographer Thandiwe Muriu is passionate about showcasing her native culture and people to the world. She observes everyday scenes on the streets of Nairobi, as well as the faces and energy around her, and channels it into her work.
Her exhibition, “In the Eyes of Thandiwe” is currently showcasing at the 193 gallery in Paris, France. In it, she captures portraits of people blending into a background of traditional African blankets and textiles to celebrate their heritage.
Through her images, she highlights what she loves most about the Kenyan people: Their resourcefulness, hairstyles and features. But there is also a deeper meaning: “The series is titled Camo because of how the subject of each image camouflages into the background. It’s a commentary on how as individuals, we can lose ourselves to the expectations culture has on us, 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,” she explains.
Glamour SA caught up with Thandiwe, to talk about her life and dreams.
You hail from Nairobi, Kenya. Tell us about your career journey to becoming a successful photographer. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
My journey began at 14 years old 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 me.
I began photographing my sisters after school using bedsheets as backdrops and foil paper as a reflector.
Facebook had just become big and about a year later I got a message asking how much I charged for a photoshoot. 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!
Over time, I began shooting corporate events and by the time I was in university, had a steady stream of clients and enough savings to buy my first camera.
I graduated as the valedictorian of my university (United States International University) with a degree in Marketing and felt pressure to consider the job offers I received. It was my father who 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 to pursue my passion.
After that, it was years of hard work and perseverance that finally got me to my ultimate dream of shooting advertisements. I was hungry to grow and learn and would take any opportunity that came my way.
2. How would you describe your aesthetic?
My work is often very colourful and clean. I am naturally drawn to communicating with colour above everything else.
3. What inspires you when creating new work?
Anything and everything! I draw deep inspiration from observing my culture. 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 used as side-mirrors on a bicycle weaving through traffic or even as decorative clothing accessories on a Maasai warrior! These everyday scenes often trigger an idea or concept in my mind.
The beautiful faces around me and the work of other creatives are sources of inspiration as well.
4. You exhibition “In the Eyes of Thandiwe” is currently showcasing at the 193 gallery in Paris, France. Tell us about this Camo series?
Over the years, I my journey led me into commercial advertising photography, which I thoroughly enjoy, but I yearned for an outlet for my more creative side. It was on the advise of a fellow photographer that I began the Camo series. It was a way to photograph what I was passionate about as an artist while crafting my own unique style.
Camo began simply as appreciating our African fabrics. In my images, the fabric acts as the backdrop that I can celebrate my culture on. It is a bright, welcoming canvas that I can highlight what I love about the Kenyan people on.
However, I quickly realized there is so much more depth and breadth to our culture beyond that. If I speak of African beauty, I need to focus on more than what we wear and explore who we are and how that makes us uniquely beautiful. With that in mind, I refined my messaging down to our textiles, our hair, our resourcefulness and our features.
5. You’ve collaborated with some amazing brands and personalities. Is there any company or person you would love to get the chance to work with?
I would love to create content for Vlisco. I’m in love with their prints!
6. What has been your favourite project that you’ve worked on thus far?
I’m always up for a technical challenge - something that pushes me to the limits of my knowledge. I recently completed shooting an advertisement that was focused on how liquids move. Camo is my passion project and will always remain one of my favourite work to create.
7. You love to showcase African culture, colours and people in your works. What message(s) do you wish to convey through your photography?
Beyond being very playful and colourful, my work often has 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 as individuals, we can lose ourselves to the expectations culture has on us, 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.
We often wear our hair in braids or chemically straightened, even though we have a rich history of beautiful, architectural hairstyles that are being forgotten. Our natural hairstyles as Africans/ Kenyans are one of the unique things about our beauty culture that I wouldn’t want to see lost, so I incorporate it into my work to spark conversation around traditional hairstyles and how we can wear them today.
I like to call it ‘modernizing history’- I draw from historical elements to inform our future generations about our past.
Our dark skin is one of our most striking features and I want to encourage young girls to celebrate that. Though these can often be heavy themes, I wanted to highlight them in a playful, easily approachable way.
8. What are your career goals going forward?
I’d like to archive as many fabrics as I can from across Africa over the next few years. To have my work acquired into some permanent collections would be amazing! And I have always had the dream of shooting advertising campaigns widely across Africa.
Closer to my heart would be to create a contextually relevant photography curriculm that can be used to teach budding photographers in Africa.
9. How do you like to spend your free time?
During covid I’ve developed a passion for gardening and spend a lot of time enjoying working on my garden. I have a deep appreciation of the outdoors and adventure, so covid allowing, I travel as much as I can!
10. How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
Determined, curious, perfectionist, passionate and an introvert.
11. Lastly, is there any mantra or philosophy that you live by?
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.