Cyrus Kabiru, a visual artist who works at Kuona Trust.
Interviewers: Anna Lafrentz and Stefanie Habben
Please tell us something about you and your art and everything else you want to tell.
I'm Cyrus Kabiru, I'm an artist. I'm a Kenyan artist. No, I'm not a Kenyan artist, I'm an artist from Kenya. I paint, I sculpt, and I'm known for designing the eyewear – I call them the C-stunners. C is for my name, Cyrus. For most of my work, I recycle trash to give it a second chance. As you can see on my glasses, they're all out of a different material and the same applies for my sculptures. I don't have them here now, because I'm doing an exhibition in Sudan, and all my sculptures are there. With my glasses I'm doing an exhibition in a studio museum in Harlem, New York. So, some of my glasses and photos are there.
You said you're not a Kenyan artist but an artist from Kenya. What is the difference for you?
A Kenyan artist is an artist who's still in Kenya, and who doesn't want to be an international artist. It's like I'm putting myself too much in Kenya. But I'm an artist from Kenya, so if I say I'm a Kenyan Artist that means I can't be an international artist. That's why I say I'm an artist from Kenya. And I grew up in Nairobi, I live in Nairobi, and I have a studio in Nairobi. My life is in Nairobi.
Could you describe your working progress on your glasses?
My work is not craft. So when I do, I need to think first. 'Cause I can't do something without an idea of the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing. The glasses, they need to have a story first. After the story, I express the story in the artwork. I also have a series of masks, whereby I have Asian masks, Caribbean masks, Indian masks — all kinds of masks. Before I make them, I think about something happening, something like a story I've heard and things like that.
Now, you are quite successful on an international level. How did this work out for you? Who was supporting you first?
I'm not yet successful. Nowadays, I'm a bit known internationally. Locally, I'm not yet known.
Why do you think you're internationally known but not regionally?
When I get international invitations, the people there treat me like someone famous. You feel like you're someone famous, you're an artist, you're respected. They receive me with much respect. And the reason why my work is getting there is because, I think, the internet helped me a lot. 'Cause it's hard to do an exhibition in Kenya. We don't have galleries and the galleries we have, they have their own people they deal with. I already created my own way of selling my work.
I don't rely much on galleries or museums. The internet plays a big role; most of my work is known because of Facebook, my blog, my website and things like that.
What do you think of the appreciation of art here in Nairobi?
I think that Kenyan art for now is not much appreciated, yet. I think Kenya has problems.
Right now, I'm doing some workshops, where I teach how to design by using trash. And I try to show people the advantage of having an artwork. I used to give people my works, then I started selling my works for 5000 Ksh, that's almost 50-60 USD, and most of the people bought them.
Recently, I sold three of my glasses for 3000 USD. So, you see the difference from 60 USD to 3000 USD. When I was in Italy, I managed to sell some for 2000 USD. So, that's how I'm trying to show the Kenyans the advantage of having artworks in their houses. ‘Cause someone that bought my work for 60 USD can now sell it for a lot of money if they wanted to. You can invest in art.
Apart from that, we need to move from the era of hanging calendars in the house. We need to move from that an era to hang artwork, real artwork. Something you can communicate with. Art communicates. And if you have an artwork in your house, there's no loneliness. Art gives life. I'm trying to show the people the reasons for buying artwork. That's the thing I'm trying to work on. That's my work as an artist, that's our work as artists. We need to change the mentality, especially locally, of buying big cars. That's not life. I think we need to move from buying big cars to start buying art and also to invest in art.
Was it necessary to leave Kenya for your work?
Yeah, I think I can survive outside Kenya. Most of the people I visit don't want me to go back. I've travelled a lot, but most of the people I met when I travelled, they said they don't want me to go back to Kenya; they want me to stay there. I met a designer, and she asked me whether I can live outside of Kenya, and I think I cannot live outside Kenya.
Why do you always choose to come back and what inspires you?
I think I get inspired when I visit some places in Kenya. I like travelling, as well. I like to try different cultures and to experiment with them on my work. And also I'm kind of a nomad artist, and you know nomads always travel, always move from one place to the other. Also my tribe, my culture – in my culture we are hunters and gatherers. So, sometimes I hunt, I gather. That's how I do.
What's your history? Where do you come from and how was your way to become an artist?
I think I just got myself into being an artist. I grew up in a family where they're all technicians. But I started making my art when I was really young. And it was a bit hard to start. Although, I never knew I was an artist. I came to knew that I'm an artist when I was already grown up.
My dad is the one that inspired me to do the glasses. 'Cause he got the real glasses when he was young and one day he messed with them. So he used to say 'Cyrus, if you want to survive in my house, you design your own eyewear.' So I started designing a long time ago. And I keep designing them. So, I can't explain when I started doing art.
When I went to school, I used to exchange like this: 'When you do my homework, I give you my artwork. You do my exam...' and so on. I never liked being busy reading. Even up to now, I really don't like to. I feel like I'm wasting time. I can't sit. When I read, I feel like I'm idle – and I hate to be idle. So yeah, that's how I started doing art. And I used to have my own home studio.
My dad never supported me and he used to feel like I'm a loser. This year, my dad visited my studio for the first time. That's when he came here and he walked around the place, and then I asked him what kind of art he liked and he said 'I like the guy who designs the eyewear and the sculptures made of bottle tops' and I told him 'Yeah, that's me' and he was happy.
Now, he says he's ready to support me if I needed any help. But for now, I don't think I need any help from him. But I need mental help, like talking and discussing. I like history, so sometimes he tells me about history. In most of my work, I relate with history. Most of my glasses have a title, and I title them with a story.
Are you content with your life now?
I think I don't have a hard life. I never thought I'd be who I am, today. I grew up to be the person I am, little by little. I'm not yet as rich as I want to be, although, right now I'm living the life I used to admire. I used to admire travelling, driving, having my own place.
Soon, I want to have my own studio space here, so that's a project I'm working on, because I want people to visit my working space. So maybe next year, I try to have my own space and a place to invite international artists for a residency and things like that. My work is going well. I'm selling my work.
These days, I'm dealing with the big collectors. This year alone, I met four collectors from different places. They just came here to buy my work. Three days ago, I sold four of my works in New York to one of the biggest collectors in the States. I'm trying to create my own field of selling my work but I don't want to benefit myself. That's why I'm saying that I want to have my own space, where I can also invite the creative guys. I want to create a creative hub, bringing them together to see how it can go and how we can work.