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© Thandiwe Muriu

Inspired by the covers of prominent fashion magazines such as Vogue and the rich cultural history of her own Kenyan heritage, Thandiwe Muriu aims to highlight the natural beauty of women with whom she identifies. Muriu photographs her subjects in striking, intricately patterned fabrics that often resemble the traditional textiles of various African countries and cultures. Backdropping the subjects using the same vibrant pattern, Muriu creates hypnotizing illusions.

Muriu wants her models to both blend in and stand out at the same time. The images in her Camo - short for camouflage - series create an optical illusion where the person in the photograph almost disappears yet it is impossible to ignore her. "I love fashion photography, I could do that all day, but I realised it needs to be fashion photography that is a reflection of who I am and my background, that is how the Camo series came about."

The funky fabrics, elaborate hairstyles and improvised eyewear are an attractive and witty celebration of Muriu's culture. But there is also a critique. Muriu says the series is "a little bit of a personal reflection on how I felt I can disappear into the background of my culture.

"And my experience as a commercial female photographer was realising that very quickly - because of the cultural context - I can be dismissed and disappear." Muriu went into commercial photography, which in Kenya is male-dominated. "I'm small, I look very young and so oftentimes the biggest thing I would experience is people dismissing me. I would walk on to set and people would talk to my assistant who was male, assuming he was the photographer rather than me.

"I had to learn to be brave and bold and say: 'Hi, I'm in charge.'"

Looking at the images in the series it is obvious that constructing them is a meticulous process. It starts with choosing the fabric, which Muriu describes as one of the hardest but most enjoyable parts. Spending hours in Nairobi's fabric shops, she sifts through floor-to-ceiling piles of cloth imported from across the continent. She is looking for "something that's really loud with an almost psychedelic quality as if the fabrics are alive and moving and confusing the eye". It is recognisably African but not necessarily the traditional designs. "We're in this new Africa, this new generation, where we love our prints but we're not going to wear them in traditional ways." Another key stage is the hair. As the project developed, Muriu became more intentional about her exploration of African beauty. She researches historical and traditional hairstyles. Then with the help of a stylist gives them a "modern, funky twist but they are based on hair that our ancestors actually used to wear", she says.

"It became more than just looking at beauty. It was about asking: 'What are some of the symbols of beauty that we have lost?'"

The eyewear, made from soft drinks cans, plastic tea strainers, clothes pegs, bottle brushes and other objects represent the innovative way that many everyday things in Kenya are repurposed for other uses, Muriu says. They also add to the humour of the images which the photographer wants to make visually stimulating and enjoyable, while at the same time tackling some very profound issues.

click to view all the images in the series

CAMO published by Chronicle Chroma on 192 pages is available to pre-order for delivery April 2024

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