Runako Connect Blog

Beauty through an African lens

Updated: Apr 30

The immortal memorialization of beauty through images is one of the integral parts of the beauty industry and is key part of today’s visual culture. From the creation of the first photograph, these still images have been used to capture and immortalize everything from family moments we want to remember, to our values, aspirations and even life changing moments. The identity of many a fashion brand and our perception of what they stand for have been shaped by the iconic imagery we associate with them. A lot of the time we never get to know the artists behind the lens who create some of these world changing images.

This week we took the time to catch up with Valerie Murray, a female photographic artist, graphic designer, and stylist who has been challenging the status quo in the photographic industry and using her amazing talent to create masterpieces that celebrate her unique perspective on African beauty and style. Join us as we get to know the woman behind the camera lens and take a look at some of her photographic creations. Valerie is Cape town based but was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe which is where she first embarked on her visual journey through the use of art and photography as her media of communicating her thoughts to the world.

How did you get into photography and what inspires your drive for your work?

Growing up my imagination was captured and inadvertently inspired by my surroundings. My late grandfather was a photographer for the national archives in the 1970's in Zimbabwe. Clearly, his passion for photography was passed down to me genetically. I took a keen interest in art at a young age which progressively led to my studies in graphic design and photography through a visual arts school.

My work is a celebration of my African heritage influenced by my layered upbringing in beautiful Harare, Zimbabwe. Beauty through an African lens is my mantra. Over the years I have become a seasoned photographer with a prominent African aesthetic. My drive emanates from my perpetual desire to capture African beauty in a unique and sophisticated manner. An artist’s ability to tell a story in pictures is the key to communicating their thoughts. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ literally translates to how different viewers would interpret a pictorial composition. For thousands of years this communication has enabled artists from different, cultural, religious and educational backgrounds to visually capture the very essence of the world’s existence.

You seem to have a very distinct way of displaying your portrait subjects not only to highlight their beauty but as works of art as well. What inspires this and the creative process behind it?

The artistic elements of my work encapsulate my pride as an African woman. I absolutely love the different features of African people throughout the continent. The flamboyant colours and textures of the fabrics from different countries in Africa are gloriously vibrant and unique. The combination of all these elements, alongside the beautiful models specifically chosen for each shoot, inject life into my images. I prefer a combination of photography and Photoshop manipulation, creating compositions based on what my mind’s eyes sees as I work. Being a visual communicator allows me to use pictures as a poet would use words. However, although my intent is to capture moments in beauty, I leave the interpretation to the audience.

Celebrating African beauty in all its forms can be a vast and diverse journey. What has this meant for you in your work as a creative?

Both local and international media narratives of our diverse continent often slant towards the undeniable challenges faced by a large percentage of Africans .This portrayal has inadvertently created a lack of pride in Africans insofar as embracing our uniqueness. Instead we favour Western definitions of beauty. One of my key objectives is to glorify the beauty of our people through the distinct colours of our traditional fabrics, textures and elaborate hairstyles.

What has been your experience being a female in a male dominated industry?

I’ve never felt compelled to compete with other artists, irrespective of gender. I have selected quite a niche genre which allows me to carve my own artistic identity free of comparison.

Are there times or areas where you think your being female has given you an ability to relate with your subjects or an intuitive advantage in highlighting their beauty?

Certainly, there are numerous advantages to being a woman which undoubtedly leave an imprint on my work. While, styling and make-up are not confined to particular genders; my mother's seamstress skills have seeped into my shoots as I style most of the models from head to toe. Not only do I style the models, I style the spaces and am therefore fortunate to possess creative design that enhances my work exponentially. Additionally, I have made it my business to learn how to highlight the models features using the many make-up tricks I have been exposed to and practiced over the years.

What are some of your highlights and downsides from being in your line of work?

The highlight would definitely be seeing the end product and the joy it brings to the audience. I receive a great deal of positive feedback regarding the quality of my work which is encouraging and rewarding. The most common remarks on my work are centered on how beautifully the African essence of the models is captured through each portrait with pride. Before the delayed global movement towards an appreciation for the fullness and beauty of Africa, my work was often misunderstood. At that point, the view was that it was a drastic departure from mainstream imagery. Despite the previous lack of interest, I did not permit the status quo to affect my resolve to tell African stories through images over the last 20 years. I always saw the value in making my African heritage center stage in my work.

How has your journey as a creative and professional in the beauty industry impacted your own personal journey and outlook on beauty?

It’s definitely helped me to embrace my natural hair more. I have always been an advocate for natural beauty but in recent years, it has amplified as I see the progression of my work and the themes I highlight, that resonate with a lot of people. The reward is hearing someone saying, "Wow" I can absolutely see myself in your work!" This is often accompanied by their desire to be photographed by me, so that their uniqueness can be celebrated through an image - beyond their generation.

It is clear that as our ideas of beauty evolve and we steer more towards Afrocentric expressions of how we see ourselves, photographic artists like Valerie Murray will become more and more important in shaping and capturing our own special moments. For a look at some more of Valerie's work you can take a look at our event styles page here to see a special photo shoot she did for Runako Connect. You can also find her work on Instagram as @alterego_photos

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