Tanzanian painter Abu Mwenye creates hyper-realistic portraits of Maasai warriors in his series Beauty in the Beads. These are portraits of warriors of the Maasai people, a nomadic tribe from East Africa, which also includes Mwenye’s home country, Tanzania. 

In Mwenye's hands, these warriors are painted in the style of regal European royal portraiture. They are dressed in traditional Maasai fashion and accessories, exuding power and commanding the respect of their viewers. This allows Mwenye to paint a picture of Tanzania and the extension of Africa, which is empowered and flourishing, far from the impoverished place that popular culture has painted it to be.

This representation of an empowered Africa delivers to its viewers the same impression that Marvel’s Black Panther did. Mwemye’s pieces highlight the beauty of Black people and celebrate Black culture, expanding narratives of Black lives in society. 

Beauty in the Beads #3 by Abu Mwenye. Image courtesy of Saatchi Art.

In short, they break the myth and stigma that Africa is poor and provide an alternative point of view where Africans are empowered. They give Black viewers hope for a future where all Black people live free from oppression by reminding them of how they, too, are regal. This makes Mwenye’s pieces reflect the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal for Reduced Inequalities.

Beauty in the Beads by Abu Mwenye. Image courtesy ofFine Art America.

However, in the first painting of the series, Beauty in the Beads, Mwenye does not forget to remind his viewers that even these majestic warriors, with their extravagant display of strength, still have the capacity to be vulnerable and open. This is symbolized by the single blue rose on the warrior’s spear, which is often thought to represent someone’s acceptance of their flaws.

Here, Mwenye reminds his viewers to continue to stay true to their heritage. They must remember past struggles and oppressions to wisely use their power.

Beauty in the Beads #1 by Abu Mwenye. Image courtesy of Wescover.

In each portrait, Mwenye also includes hand-threaded and hand-sewn Maasai beaded accessories. Each colour used in Maasai beadwork holds certain cultural meanings. Red, a predominant colour, signifies bravery and unity; white represents peace and health; blue speaks of energy; and green represents land and productivity. By integrating these beads, Mwenye helps not just celebrate the culture, but also keep it alive for future generations.

Beauty in the Beads #4 by Abu Mwenye. Image courtesy of Abu Mwenye’s website.

Though most of Mwenye’s pieces do not refer to a specific Masaai warrior, one particular piece, Beauty in the Beads #4, depicts a warrior named Namunyak (Namu). In Maasai, her name means innovation, independence, determination, courage, sincerity, and activity. “I created this masterpiece through my imagination. It is my version of  African Monalisa,” said Mwenye about the piece.

For Mwenye, people named Namu are natural leaders. They are born curious and free, driven to achieve their goals and passions—all traits of the Maasai and Africans that Mwenye hopes the world will be able to see through his paintings.

Find out more about Abu Mwenye’s portraits and other pieces by checking their Instagram at @artbyabu.m.

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