Thandiwe Muriu is Kenya’s first woman commercial photographer and a photographic artist of international acclaim. Encouraged by her family, Muriu developed a passion for photography in her teens and set out to become a professional photographer. This blossomed into a career in the world of advertising, and later into the exploration of personal projects. Her energy, optimism and enthusiasm are immense—all of which you can feel the love, power and creativity she shares from the opening moments all the way through our latest episode of Design Tangents.
Muriu knew from the beginning that she was more interested in creating narratives. She built sets with what she could find, citing that creative recycling is distinctly Kenyan: if “you can’t afford to buy things to solve your problems you look at what you have and solve them that way.” This is a practice she continues to honor today, recognizing that “there is beauty even in that difficulty and I wanted to bring that to my work.”
As her career developed and commercial work was taking off she started to feel like something was missing. “I had gotten into the routine of creation but I had lost the heart of creating in that process. That’s the moment I began making art—when I began taking pictures for myself and having projects exclusively for myself.” This was when her “Camouflage” series was born. “I began to make art that was impactful when I began to allow more of my story to show in my images,” she says. This shift unlocked a new level of creative energy for Muriu and it’s influencing her commercial work as well.
“They always come first,” Muriu say of the Ankara textiles that inform her “Camouflage” series. The bold, hypnotic and colorful patterns are the backdrop of each image, are used to make the clothes for the model and establish the title of the final work—which is often named by finding a Kenyan proverb that matches. Some of her favorites are “A woman’s beauty is not hidden in her face,” “A diamond does not lose value due to lack of admiration” and “When your sister does your hair you do not need a mirror.”
The model is photographed in situ—everything you see was created and captured on set. “I want to celebrate our natural beauty and address some of the stereotypes in Kenya,” she explains while talking about the models she chooses. Muriu also collects objects that she, in the spirit of Kenyans making do with that they have, uses to design unique eyewear for each image. She has jua kali artisans craft these items—which are also art works of art on their own.
Art was viewed as something you did if you failed at life. That stereotype is beginning to change and that means people have more courage to want to become an artist.
Nairobi’s perception of artists, Muriu shares, infers that “art was viewed as something you did if you failed at life. That stereotype is beginning to change and that means people have more courage to want to become an artist.” She talks about a shifting creative perspective, “I call it the new Africa. We’re tired of other people telling our stories and we are beginning to recognize our changing identities.” Heavily influenced through exposure to global media online she describes a “new hybrid culture” that’s still African in its roots yet also very Westernized. “Someone like me would reject tradition but I’m coming to this place of realizing it’s a core part of who I am and it doesn’t take away from the other aspects of me that are very Western.”
Muriu sees her work as an opportunity to further share her culture and educate an international audience. “I get to bring my Kenyan voice to global issues and platforms,” she says. And though her commercial clients are from all over she always encourages them to “come to Nairobi” if they want a deep understanding of her personal style.
Words cannot truly convey Muriu’s magnetism. Tune in to this episode of Design Tangents to hear her voice and learn more about her work, culture and motivation. And because, as she says, “Instagram literally opened doors for my career,” be sure to follow her there, too.
Design Tangents is presented by Genesis and produced and edited by SANDOW Design Group. Special thanks to the podcast production team: Rob Schulte, Hannah Viti, Wize Grazette and Samantha Sager and to Amber Lin for creating our show art. Discover more design podcasts from SURROUND at surroundpodcasts.com.