Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Interview With Artist Cyrus Kabiru

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Cyrus Kabiru is a Nairobi-based visual artist, working predominantly with painting and sculpture. Born and raised in a Kenyan slum, the junk that surrounded Cyrus day by day, inspired him to create some of the most fascinating recycled art objects I have encountered in a while: hand-made steampunk-style eyeglasses. Intrigued by his highly original, self-taught practice, I had a chat with him as he prepared for his first ever show outside Kenya.

Amongst paintings and sculptures you also create eyewear with the use of recyclable materials. I am amazingly curious: why in particular bifocals?

The original idea that inspired me to start making glasses, stemmed from memories of my childhood. I was always fascinated with glasses and loved to wear them, but due to an incident that happened to our family I was forbidden to do so. My grandfather and my father have a deep-seeded hatred for glasses. Whether it be shades (sunglasses) or normal corrective lenses, my grandfather and father to this day have a deep loathing for them. As a young boy my father had problems with his vision, so my grandfather bought him a pair of glasses from the hospital. Two days later, while playing with other boys, he (my father) dropped them by accident and a lorry which happened to be fatefully passing by, ran over them, shattering them completely. The hospital glasses were very expensive at that time, it goes without saying that he received a very thorough beating from my grandfather. From that day on, my father hated glasses.

When did you first start making things with your hands and when did you start creating art with found objects? Did those two moments coincide?

I used to admire sun-glasses; but wearing them was an impossibility because of my father's attitude towards them. Thus, I decided that when I’d grow up I would pick up the pieces that the lorry left behind and make my own. And so I started, using found objects like wire, wood, paper and other things. Many of my friends despised me as I continued nurturing that dream. They called the sunglasses names and said that was nonsense, arguing that it was a strange type of art. What they never knew was that this was my dream and I had made it my hobby as well. Today, many years later, the concept of C-STUNNERS© ( has been taken to another level. As for your actual question, I was the best toy maker in the area I grew up in, so it is hard to pinpoint the exact time and moment I started; the reason I work with found materials is related purely to the place I used to live in.

Could you give us a bit of a "conceptual background" on your work? What issues are you focusing on and what is it that you wish to get along?

I love the environment and I deeply care about it as when I work with recycled material I feel like, in a way, I am helping our nature as, you know, everyone is against the environment. I am also doing a workshop educating people on how to care about it through art.

As an artist do you believe in inspiration? 

Sure, I believe in inspiration. As I said, my dad inspired me to start making glasses, nature has hugely influenced my sculptures and my paintings; that's how I am and also how I behave.

There's an ongoing discussion about the internet helping young creatives in Africa to get their work exposed on a grander scale. How do you feel the internet & social media have influenced your own exposure and reach as an artist?

A lot of people - like you, for example - have found and approached me through the internet, so I couldn’t underestimate it’s influence on me as a young Kenyan artist. In Kenya there is no gallery that wants to work with me and sell my art, and there are also no real art collectors as you know them. Of course this has also formed my identity as an artist, making me who I am today; I sell my art to people who know nothing about me.

You are a self-taught artist; did this happen more out of necessity or out of choice? Do you feel inclined to take any formal art courses at some point?

My dad wanted me to study electronic engineering but I refused; he then wanted me to go to art college but I refused again. I am a “self-learner” and I also performed badly in high-school because I was completely absorbed in art. But the reason I didn’t (and still don’t) want to go to art college is that I don’t want to follow any teacher’s rules. Now I am free to follow my instincts and be myself.

How would you describe the state of art education in Kenya?

I don’t really want to talk much about art education in Kenya, because all artists aren’t the same. There are people who can’t be artists without specified learning and also most major in graphic design, interior design etc. 

Do you have any favourite artists? What about younger Kenyan ones, anyone you feel stands out?

My favourite artists are the ones I work with. But what you say, about age, in art we don’t have young or old, we are all the same. I learned this when I joined an art organization at a very young age; we were all treated as equals.

Have you ever exhibited outside Kenya? 

No, but I have a show in Holland from the 26th of September on and I’m hoping it will be good!

For more of his work please visit: