“Artistic, creative, visionary” - Thandiwe Muriu photographs Nairobi’s creative renaissance

Thandiwe Muriu is a leading Kenyan photographer who uses the medium to tell the story of “her Africa”, full of colours and energy. Muriu’s work, part of her editorial series CAMO (2015), was selected as the cover image of the 13th Intergovernmental Committee of the 2005 Convention. Muriu looks back on her career and shares her thoughts on Kenya’s bourgeorning creative scene.

Homegrown talent

Photography has been part of my life since I was 14. I would finish school, run home, pick up my camera and shoot. When I was 17, I started imitating fashion photos in magazines with my sister as a model. I’d post them online, and people started contacting me for a shoot. Still, it was just a way to earn some pocket money and never a career option. I was always good at school, and people expected straight-A students to become a doctor or a lawyer. In a way, I did too.

I majored in marketing at university because I saw it as a “serious” job with a creative side. My photography business grew during university years thanks to a major campaign I did for a Swedish brand. When I graduated at the top of my year, job offers poured in but none of them spoke to me. That's when my father said "But you like taking pictures. Why are you thinking about doing anything else?" It was as if all the pressure on my shoulders melted away.

Starting out as a professional photographer was not easy. Entrepreneurship is a relatively new path in Kenya, so banks did not offer me a loan. I reinvested the money I earned from shoots to buy equipment. It took me a while to collect everything I needed. There was also a stigma to fight. Many people saw photography as a side job while you find a “real career” - Plan C or D at best. It was hard knowing that people thought it was my hobby and I was not contributing to Kenya's development.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. When I was in my late teens, a group of young, emerging photographers disrupted the scene. They put homegrown commercial photography on the map when most working photographers in Nairobi were much older and often non-African. I entered the industry at the right time - the time of awakening. They took me under their wings.

“This is the market price.” “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” These practical advices gave me the confidence to carve out my space. They were only about 5 years older than me, but those years made a huge difference. Today, they continue to pave the way for younger artists by representing Kenyan vision on the global stage.

 

Exploring “African beauty”

CAMO was the first time I shot something truly for myself. I started by asking myself: “what do I like?” The answer was simple - colors. I expanded the concept of African colors and played with patterns. My stylist gave me the idea of using everyday objects like cans of soda as an accessory. The resulting images are fun, playful and unapologetically African.

Using a very dark-skinned model was also important. I grew up with a beauty standard that did not celebrate my skin, and there was a “pain” in being dark skinned. CAMO challenged these ideals and explored true “African beauty”. I wanted little girls to see themselves in my work and discover the beauty in her skin, lips and hips.

I have since grown as an artist and a person. I used to feel apologetic about using dark-skinned models... Not anymore. Today, I am less afraid of putting my identity in the front and center. I proudly wear it as a badge of honor.

Recently, I’m inspired by everyday African objects. For example, a brightly colored plastic strainer that I use to prepare tea is cut up and worn by an accessory by Maasais. In Kenya, one object has 20 other uses, and it defies class or social group. We style things in a way that you’d never see in the West and it’s constantly evolving and exhilarating.

 

Voice of Nairobi

Nairobi is going through a creative renaissance. First, we have more female creatives. My last workshop had more female participants than male - I was overjoyed. Then there is our music, more experimental than ever. Production value has also improved. Cultural festivals and food festivals are everywhere. Stylists are increasingly choosing local taste over the global norm. All this is waking the public up to the value of creativity.

Ten years ago, people thought photographer meant photojournalist. In 2020, our photos are artistic, creative and visionary. I want people to know that good things can come out of Africa, and they are coming out.

When I started my career, everyone told me that all the jobs are already taken. This cannot be further from the truth - pie is big enough for everybody. Gain of any creative is my gain, and that’s why I always tell aspiring creatives “We need your voice.” Storytelling is ingrained in Kenyan culture. Photography is another form of storytelling - your story.