The photography of Thandiwe Muriu deconstructs Africa’s unique mix of vibrant cultural practices, textiles and beauty ideologies. In her Camo series, she creates surreal illusions that are not digital manipulations, and confronts issues surrounding identity and self-perception, while seeking to redefine female empowerment through the application of her choice of materials, such as textiles and common household items.
The historical Ankara wax textile defines Thandiwe’s work. At the forefront of her practice is using textiles to make her subjects disappear and serve as a canvas for reflection on the question of identity and its evolution over time. Textiles are an under appreciated art in and of themselves that both capture history and express identity- they are as dynamic as the people who wove them. “A tree cannot stand without roots,” says the proverb, and the depth of tradition grounds Thandiwe’s images, as she explores the place of historical beauty narratives in the modern identity.
In a vibrant realisation of the African proverb, “However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source,” Thandiwe consistently reimagines objects associated with the daily lives of Kenyans into bold accessories donned by her subjects. These objects range from toilet paper rolls, to hair pins, to the mosquito repellent coils the artist grew up using. In Kenya an object can have multiple uses beyond its original purpose. This creative recycling is commonplace for a population often lacking in means. She explains: “When you have little, you transform and reuse it.”
Cultural reference does not end with the elements of each image; the very process of creation is culturally embedded. Designing the garments and eyewear worn by her subjects, Thandiwe collaborates with local tailors and artisans to bring those custom designs to life. Her work is marked by precision and intentionality from the conception of a piece through to its final printed form. She completes her visual illusions by printing on special paper, making the work appear more like paintings rather than photographs.
Passionate about the rich history of traditional, architectural hairstyles that are being forgotten, she was inspired to incorporate modern forms of these hairstyles into her work in a process she refers to as ‘modernising history’- drawing from historical elements to inform future generations about the past.
Paring each work with an African proverb, Thandiwe expresses the collected wisdom of generations recorded through oral history even as she communicates culture in a new and visual form. Their usage invites us to consider how heritage informs and shapes the contemporary African identity even as the continent rapidly changes under the influence of the forces of globalisation. “A wise man who knows the proverbs of the land reconciles difficulties.” Rather than encumbering us, perhaps our heritage gives us the ground on which to stand in self reflection.
Thandiwe takes us on a colourful, reflective journey through her world as a woman living in modern Kenya, as she reinterprets contemporary African portraiture, and presents a bold new vision of a woman and her autonomy.