Quiet Confidence

Quiet Confidence

Thandiwe Muriu (b. 1990) discovered photography at fourteen. It was a defining moment. The artist describes it as the realisation that “light could be a paintbrush.” Today, the Kenyan lens-based artist is one of the biggest names behind the camera. In 2020, Muriu won the Photo London Emerging Photographer of the Year Award and she is currently embarking on a residency as part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre Programme. Muriu started the Camo series back in 2015 whilst working as a successful commercial photographer. At the time, she felt frustrated with the lack of space in her job for her own creative expression. This collection was her first leap into personal work and she shared her first portrait on Instagram in July 2015. Over the years, this body of work has maintained a distinctive and eye-catching visual style. Bold backgrounds melt into matching garments, creating an illusion of the wearer being inseparable from her surroundings. Now, Muriu shares the evolution of this series in her first photo book, which is a beautiful compendium that displays over 70 shots she took between 2015 and 2023.

“Beauty and greatness do not belong to the gods alone.” These words ring true next to Muriu’s striking portrait Camo 2.0 4415. Here we see a woman who is elaborately adorned in a bold pattern of interlinking lines, which shift from blue to black to red to yellow. Rainbow-coloured beads fall in front of her face in shades of pink, purple and teal. The busy, vibrant pattern is what makes the piece dynamic, despite her calm, seated pose. Surrounded by loud patterns, the sitter exudes a quiet confidence. This landmark piece was the first time Muriu chose to pair proverbs with images. Muriu honours traditions whilst embracing the 21st century by positioning bold, modern images alongside ancient proverbs passed down orally through generations. In this way, her work manifests the philosophy of New Africa, which the artist defines as “hybrid culture merging the reality of westernisation without losing our beloved, innate African values.”

CAMO invites the viewer to enjoy a series of optical illusions. Women appear completely enveloped in bright patterns. This means that our eyes focus on their facial expressions, hand gestures and bold accessories. For example, in Camo 20, the subject holds a monocle made of yellow wire in front of her right eye. Elsewhere, Camo 20 shows a woman adjusting her collar as she looks resolutely away from the camera. The blend of camouflaging clothing and confident poses addresses the ways in which societies make women invisible unless they fit the acceptable beauty standard. The artist explains: “it becomes a true camouflage, where the subject disappears both literately and metaphorically, in one sense magically vanishing and in another mirroring the way society can make a woman feel invisible.” The women in Muriu’s shots are the centre of attention; their unflinching gazes and mannerisms inspire confidence in the viewer.

Since 2015, Muriu has refined the concept for Camo whilst retaining the taste for creative experimentation that fuelled this project from the beginning. This is clear from her continuous innovation – such as including proverbs and working with Kenyan tailors – that keep the series fresh. Just as no two garments are the same, no two of Muriu’s portraits are the same. It’s an impressive achievement to introduce something new and spark joy with every page. Camo is a testament to Muriu’s power as a photography.

CAMO: Thandiwe Muriu | Chronicle Books


Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Images Courtesy © Thandiwe Muriu