Vibrant Textiles and Repurposed Eyewear Camouflage the Subjects of Thandiwe Muriu’s Celebratory Portraiture
From chunky hair beads and rollers to sink strainers and brake pedals, Nairobi-based photographer Thandiwe Muriu (previously) finds fashionable use for ordinary objects. Worn as glasses that obscure a subject’s identity, the repurposed items add cultural flair to Muriu’s vibrant portraits and are connected to both her background and Kenyan life, more broadly. Red fringe evokes the tassel that hung from her uncle’s Toyota Corolla, which transported the artist home from school each day, while the orange plastic drain catcher references the joy found in sharing chores. She explains:
In Kenya, when a group of friends meet, the women usually gather in the kitchen to clean up after the meal is done, and as is part of Kenyan culture, wash the piles of dishes by hand. This routine task suddenly becomes a moment of laughter and stories as the women mingle and bonds are reinforced…(The portrait) celebrates the African spirit of community as it turns humble sink strainers into bright circles of joy.
Shot against bold fabric backdrops printed with dizzying patterns, Muriu’s works conceal her subjects’ bodies under perfectly aligned garments, leaving only their heads and hands visible. The photographs are part of her ongoing CAMO series, which explores how culture both creates and consumes individual identities. Incorporating rich color palettes and traditional architectural hairstyles, Muriu celebrates her African heritage while questioning beauty standards and self-perception.
Some of the photographer’s portraits are on view this month at Photo London 2022 and at 1-54 Fair in New York. In July, she’ll have a solo show with 193 Gallery at the new Maison Kitsuné Gallery in New York, as well. You can explore the full CAMO series on her site and Instagram.
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Interview: Trevon Latin Questions His Impulse to Solve Problems, Navigating Loneliness, and the Idea That Everything is Drag
For Trevon Latin, the best use of questions is to breed more questions, a tenet of his practice that he speaks to in a new interview supported by Colossal Members. Each quilt remnant, each barrette, each string of beads he incorporates into the work asks, What does masculinity look like? What does it mean to present yourself as a Black person? What does intimacy look like? What does it mean to exist as a corporeal, analog self versus a digital self or a self mediated through a work of art? For Latin, there are no static answers to these questions.
I think my art is about regular folks. I mean not regular people but people that are just existing in these ways that I’m discussing. I’m talking about queerness, performance, body, Blackness. People out in the real world doing (stuff) and really trying to survive and exist. Those are the people I’m talking to.
In this conversation with Colossal contributor Paulette Beete, Latin explains why he’s only recently started referring to himself as an artist, his approach to fully feeling every emotion he encounters, and his whole-hearted belief that, to quote RuPaul, “we are all born naked, and the rest is drag.”
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In Late Bloomer, Los Angeles-based artist Seonna Hong wades into landscapes filled with amorphous swatches of color and marred by climate disaster. Her acrylic, oil, and pastel works are on view through February 5 at Hashimoto Contemporary in Los Angeles in an introspective solo show that considers her place in an ever-evolving world. Set against abstract, blurred backdrops, Hong’s distinctly rendered animals and anonymous subjects navigate distorted terrains of once-familiar architecture and natural landmarks.
Many of the stylized compositions evoke traditional Korean landscapes from the Joseon period—these are known for their asymmetrical forms, vibrant brushstrokes, and skewed perspectives—that contemplate the human-nature relationship by placing miniature figures among formidable environments. “I’m a second-generation Korean American that is surprised to be making identity-based work but realizing I’ve been making it all along. I’ve spent my entire life between the push and pull of being Korean and American, never feeling quite Korean enough or American enough,” Hong writes on Instagram. “I’ve realized the inherent connection between my work and my history, a belated but cherished revelation.”
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What began as a simple appreciation of fabrics printed with vibrant geometries and hypnotic motifs has morphed into a stunning celebration of African culture. Thandiwe Muriu’s ongoing Camo series cloaks models in arresting garments that disguise them in textile surroundings, leaving just their hands and faces visible. “When I source fabrics, I look for something that I can look at and it almost feels alive,” she says. “Something bold, slightly confusing on the eyes, and less traditional. In my images, the fabric acts as the backdrop that I can celebrate my culture on. It is a bright, welcoming canvas that I can highlight what I love about my fellow Kenyan people.”
From the printed clothing to the subject’s accessories and hairstyles, each image is layered with references to the Nairobi-based photographer’s daily life and a sense of resourcefulness that permeates the local culture. Common items like bottle tops, mosquito coils, bicycle gears, straws, and cleaning brushes become elaborate eyewear or decorative additions to historical “architectural hairstyles that are being forgotten,” she tells Colossal. “Our natural hairstyles as Africans/Kenyans are one of the unique things about our beauty culture that I wouldn’t want to see lost, so I incorporate it into my work to spark conversation around traditional hairstyles and how we can wear them today.”
Muriu, who works in commercial advertising by day, shares that Camo is an ironic exploration into the relationship between personal and collective identities. The visually striking portraits are “commentary on how as individuals, we can lose ourselves to the expectations culture has on us, yet there are such unique and beautiful things about every individual,” Muriu says. “I wanted to celebrate everything I had struggled with in my own beauty journey—my hair, my skin, and my identity as a modern woman in a traditional culture.”
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Indiana-based artist Jessica Calderwood imbues her whimsically camouflaged figures with questions about the female psyche. Whether covered by a polka-dotted orb or stuck in a ruffled tube of fabric, her nondescript women are temporarily trapped by their environments, their only defining features the sleek black pumps or striped kneesocks that stick out from their disguise. This concealment, Calderwood says, serves as “a negation, a censoring or denial of what lies beneath. These anthropomorphic beings are at once, powerful and powerless, beautiful and absurd, inflated, and amputated.”
Deftly melding historical techniques with contemporary themes of identity, each of the works is rooted in traditional craftsmanship. A focus on mixed media is at the center of Calderwood’s broad body of work, which spans metalsmithing, jewelry, and wall-based ceramics, and many of her projects blend materials like enamel, porcelain, polymer clay, and felted wool to further evoke craft forms.
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Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu made history in 2019 when her four bronze sculptures became the first ever to occupy the niches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade. Stretching nearly seven feet, the seated quartet evokes images of heavily adorned African queens and intervenes in the otherwise homogenous canons of art history held within the institution’s walls.
The monumental figures are one facet of Mutu’s nuanced body of work that broadly challenges colonialist, racist, and sexist ideologies. Now on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the latest iteration of the artist’s subversive projects: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? disperses imposing hybrid creatures in bronze and towering sculptures made of soil, branches, charcoal, cowrie shells, and other organic materials throughout the neoclassical galleries. The figurative works draw a direct connection between the Black female body and ecological devastation as they reject the long-held ideals elevated in the space.
No matter the medium, these associations reflect Mutu’s deep respect for and fascination with the ties between nature, the feminine, and African history and culture, a guiding framework that the team at Art21 explores in a recently released documentary. Wangechi Mutu: Between the Earth and the Sky visits the artist’s studio in her hometown of Nairobi and dives into the evolution of her artwork from the smaller collaged paintings that centered her early practice as a university student in New York to her current multi-media projects that have grown in both scope and scale.
Whether a watercolor painting with photographic scraps or one of her mirror-faced figures encircled with fringe, Mutu’s works are founded in an insistence on the value of all life and the ways the earth’s history functions as a source of knowledge, which she explains:
I truly believe that there’s something about taking these bits and pieces of trees, and animals and completely anonymous but extremely identifiable items and placing them somewhere that draws their energy, wherever they were coming from, whatever they did, whatever molten lava they came out of a million years ago, that is now in my work and that little piece of energy is magnified.
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