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ArtBooksPhotography

#portraits#self-portrait#Thandiwe Muriu

Thandiwe Muriu’s New Book Celebrates the Multi-Faceted Beauty of Kenyan Culture

April 15, 2024

Grace Ebert

a portrait of the artist against a patterned orange and blue backdrop. she's wearing bright yellow hinge eyewear

All images © Thandiwe Muriu, courtesy of Chronicle Chroma, shared with permission

In 2015, Thandiwe Muriu (previously) began CAMO, a series that takes a kaleidoscopic view of the lives of contemporary African women. Nearly a decade later, hundreds of self-portraits and photos are gathered in a new book from Chronicle Chroma that celebrates the project’s striking visual impact and the nuanced, multi-faceted stories hidden in each image.

Muriu first picked up her father’s Nikon camera at age 14, experimenting with photography by recreating fashion spreads in magazines like Vogue. By 17, she started to work with large brands on advertising campaigns, and her clients have included Apple and the United Nations. These foundational experiences shine through in CAMO, which harnesses Muriu’s impeccable style to communicate larger messages about beauty, resourcefulness, women’s visibility, and the ways different cultures entwine.

a portrait of the artist against a patterned yellow and blue backdrop. she's wearing bright yellow eyewear

In each photo, the photographer either positions a small group or stands against a boldly patterned Ankara backdrop. Also known as African wax prints, these colorful textiles were first introduced to the continent by the Dutch in the 19th century and are still common for garments and accessories today. Muriu and her subjects always wear clothing identical to their surroundings, literally camouflaging their bodies into a backdrop loaded with cultural and colonial history.

The photographer also fashions playful eyewear for each portrait. She designs these wearables from ubiquitous, found waste materials like bottle caps, sponges, and hinges that directly reference the Kenyan ethos of repair and repurposing. She writes in the introduction:

This habit of combining and remodeling materials is very much the Kenyan way. It is commonplace for a population often lacking in means but not in ingenuity. It goes a step further than achieving a do-it-yourself objective. We call it jua kali: a Swahili phrase to mean

“hot or fierce sun.” The term is used to refer to our informal, blue-collar economy and the ways in which these workers labour—often outside in the blazing sun—to handcraft items through methods such as welding or carpentry.

“CAMO 44,” for example, spotlights brilliant orange eyewear made of plumbing tape and bangles and is an ode to handymen, while “CAMO 5” recycles cupcake wrappers, an autobiographical nod to her childhood excitement for baked goods. Similarly pointing to labor and the economy, “The Crown of Curiosity” features glasses outfitted with bright red coffee berries, which are typically harvested by women and continue to be one of Kenya’s major exports.

a portrait of the artist against a patterned yellow and blue backdrop. she's wearing light blue eyewear

The other considerable component of Muriu’s portraits is the architectural hairstyles and headwraps. Drawing on the traditions of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, a renowned photographer best known for documenting Nigerian women’s elaborate arrangements, she explores the cultural importance of sprawling, sculptural hairstyles traditional to African beauty standards. In the section titled Material Culture, Muriu writes, “Every time a woman puts on a headwrap, she adorns herself with the African equivalent of a regal coronet, transforming a humble piece of fabric into a beautiful piece of art that crowns her head like that of a queen.”

CAMO will be released on April 16 and is available in the Colossal Shop.

a portrait of the artist against a patterned yellow and blue backdrop. she's wearing bright orange eyewear

a book spread with text on one side and a portrait of the artist against a patterned orange and blue backdrop. she's wearing bright orange eyewear

a portrait of the artist against a patterned red and yellow backdrop. she's wearing bright red eyewear

a book spread with text on one side and a portrait of the artist against a patterned yellow, purple, and blue backdrop. she's wearing bright red eyewear

a portrait of the artist against a patterned orange and blue backdrop. her back is facing the camera

a portrait of the artist against a patterned black and yellow backdrop. she's wearing bright blue eyewear

#portraits#self-portrait#Thandiwe Muriu

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