Cyrus Kabiru crafts striking, whimsical, colourful pieces — most famously his one-of-a-kind spectacles, C-STUNNERS — from recycled waste and objects he finds on the streets of Nairobi. In a candid conversation at TED2013, the Kenyan sculptor and painter told us about his journey to becoming an artist … and how he’s struggled to forge a life path uniquely his own.
You’ve said that until recently, your family didn’t know about your art. What do they think you do?
My grandmother is always trying to find me a job. When you visit her, the first thing she’ll tell you is, “If you have an extra job, if you can get a job for my boy here, he needs one.” She doesn’t understand the meaning of art and being an artist.
My mother and father don’t know my art, but when I left Nairobi to come here to TED, they all wanted to know why. So they Googled me, saw my work, and said, “OK, so this is what he does.” In our family, they don’t bother with art, except for my brother. He encourages me.
Wait – your family didn’t know that you were an artist until you came here to TED?
They know that I’m an artist, but they never bothered about what kind of art I do. They didn’t know my artwork until this week. My sister has a Facebook page, but we’ve never been “friends.” Today she sent a friend request, and said, “Oh Cyrus, congrats. I saw your work. Keep it up.” So she discovered it today.
I live very far, far away from my family. It takes two hours from my father’s place to mine, driving.My mom and dad, they live at the eastern edge of Nairobi, and I live at the northern edge. I used to visit them every weekend. But now I visit them every two months.
Being an artist, for me, was that I was a rebel — I was a bit rude to everyone. I don’t care. I don’t follow what people want — I follow what I want. I don’t really like people. I want to go my own way. So I do everything the opposite to others, and they feel this guy is a bit of a rebel. When I was a little boy, grownups thought I was a bad example. They used to tell their kids, “Work hard. If you won’t work hard, you’ll be like Cyrus.” I was very different. I was always in my house, doing art, painting and making sculptures, and no one understood what I was doing. I didn’t study, I wore shaggy clothes. To them it was a bit weird. I didn’t know Sunday, I didn’t know Monday, I didn’t know.
In Africa, we live in a package.
What do you mean?
Monday you need to go to work up to Friday. Saturday you need to wash your clothes, you need to prepare for Sunday and Saturday. Sunday you need to go to church. You need to walk around in town and see friends. But me, I don’t have Sunday or Monday or Saturday. So if it’s visiting people, I visit any day, any time. I didn’t do homework, I didn’t study, I didn’t do exams.
But you didn’t fail at school?
All my classmates used to be much more clever than me. So they used to do homework for me. I’d pay them with artwork. “You do the exam for me, I’ll pay you in a sketch, sculpture, glasses, anything you want.”
You’ve been making glasses since you were a child?
Yeah. My dad is the one who wanted me to make the glasses: he challenged me to make them. He used to have real glasses when he was young. And one day, he messed with them and crushed them by accident. He was beaten by my grandmother because of this. So he hid the glasses from that day. And I used to admire wearing glasses when I was young. He used to say, “Cyrus, if you want to wear the glasses, maybe make your own glasses.” And that’s how I started making my own glasses. I was about seven years old.
So I think I did only one exam in my life. My dad used to be angry with me because of that. He knew. And I never performed well. After I finished high school, he said he wanted me to go to college to do electronic engineering. And I refused to join. I don’t like reading. Even after I finished high school, he used to say, “Cyrus, you know, I feel ashamed when I meet friends.” “Why?” “Because they keep asking the grades you got, your performance. And I feel ashamed to tell them.” And I was like, “Don’t listen to them. It’s my life.” And he said, “Okay.”
But then he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that “I want to do what I do: art.” And he told me to get into art school, and he’d pay for me.
I told him, “No, I don’t want to study. I want to do what I’m doing. Because if I got to school I’ll follow teachers. But I have my own art. I have my own way. So if I follow a teacher, I’ll follow his way.” He said, “Cyrus, if you refuse even to go to art college, go and start your life in another place. Go do what you want.”
He only wanted me to have a certificate. We believe much, in Africa, in a certificate. We believe that if you have one, that’s the life. As I told you, we live in a package. You study, you finish school, you go to college, you marry, you start your own life, you get kids — as many as you can — that’s the end of life. You go around like that. So if you miss one of those things, you look like you’re not normal. So when you miss a step — maybe you’re late getting married — you look abnormal.
So my dad told me that if I wouldn’t go to college, to walk out of his house. And that’s what I did. I started my own life.
How old were you?
This was six years ago, I think. But he was right, because he never supported me. I think if I relied much on him, it was a bit impossible for me to reach where I am. I think he did the right thing — to show me that I need to be myself. And I remember, I moved from his house with around 3,000 shillings — that’s around $40 — with a mattress and a stove. But the lucky thing is that I have this thing of finding money anywhere, collecting money.
You find money on the ground?
You’re just lucky that way?
Yeah. That’s how I survived to reach where I am. My studio used to be nine kilometers from where I live. Sometimes I used to walk every day. I remember, one day I was supposed to pay rent, and I only had 20 shillings — less than one dollar. I was supposed to pay $40. I remember, I crossed the road and in the road, I found exactly the money I needed to pay it.And one day, I went with a matatu — a bus — without any money. The conductor came to get the money. I pretended I was looking for it in my empty wallet. But I couldn’t find it and turned to look for it, and I found 500 shillings in my seat.
Has this always happened?
Yeah, it’s always happened. Every week I find money. Even most of my friends don’t believe me. They they ask, “Cyrus, there is something that you are doing to get the money.” When I walk with my friends in a group, they joke, but when they walk with me they find it too. When they collect money they laugh: “Cyrus, this was your money, but it’s now mine.”
Where did you practice art before you moved?
I used to work at my dad’s home. And one of my grandmothers, who used to live in Nairobi, sometimes would go to rural areas and leave me her house, which I’d use as a studio. When I moved, I moved with my art and I rented a studio somewhere. It’s in the Yaya Centre. That’s how I started my life on my own, walking long distances to work, to the studio.
Was it on your walks that you found the objects to make your art?
Yes, when I walk, I get inspired by the things that I find in the street. So I’m just walking and collecting. I don’t have high-class friends. Because they know me: I’m the person who just collects everything on the street. People feel ashamed when they are with me. When you collect in the street, you look like a street boy or madman.
You use so many materials in your art, it seems like you would spend a lot of time collecting it. You also find very beautiful things.
Yeah. And even my studio now, the place I work, it’s like a museum. Everyone takes photos of the place because it’s half very beautiful junk, and I can’t work without it.
Do you think much about the problem of waste and reuse? Or is it really simply free material for you?
The place where I grew up faced the Nairobi dump site. All the trash, all the waste of Nairobi, used to be dumped in my neighborhood. So whenever I woke up, the first thing I saw was garbage. I used to tell my dad I would like to give trash a second chance. I would like to work with trash. And that’s why, up to now, that’s what I’ve done.
I also make sculpture with rubbish. They’re fun too — and made of recycled bottle tops, wire, plastics. I have sculpture series of street musicians and wildlife.
What else are you working on?
Right now I have a project called Outreach. I travel in Kenya to different places, like rural areas, showing them how to work with the materials they have. Most recently I was in a deforested arid region, plagued by famine and drought. I targeted the older generation of a community known for their sculpture, because in Africa we believe much in older people. I know if I want to make an impact, the older generation will teach their youth. I went to show them how to work with alternative materials, such as plastic, wire. And I did a workshop there for two weeks, for 30 people. I showed them how to recycle Western materials as a resource for art.
Do you sell your work in Kenya? Are you well known as an artist in Nairobi?
I sell to the people who visit Kenya, mostly. Locally, people don’t understand my work.
How do your clients find you?
I’m doing well on the internet. Most of the people find me when they visit Kenya and just Google good places to visit. Sometimes they Google and get my name, and come visit my studio. The internet is helping me much. Galleries in Kenya don’t deal with anyone who isn’t from an established artist family. In my family, we’ve never had an artist, so I’m an unestablished artist to them. Two years ago, I put together an exhibition called Established Artists, whereby I gathered the artists who believe that they are unknown.
But I think now things are changing. Because, as I told you, having grown up as a bad example, I’m changing, and I’m now a good example to the community.
When I was growing up, I used to have a group of youths who used to follow my life, how I live. They used to admire me. If I had long hair or nails, all of the boys in the area did too. One day the parents told me, “Cyrus, cut your nails, because our children are now refusing to cut theirs.”And now I’m trying to help whoever follows me. One lady told me, “Cyrus, I think you changed my son’s life, because he used to follow your lifestyle. In our family we never studied, but you encouraged him to finish school and he is now finished.” Being a role model came with responsibility. For example, I don’t party. I used to fear partying because kids, they’d follow what I do. If I got drunk, they got drunk. If I smoked, they smoked. I couldn’t walk with ladies in public. That’s another reason I moved away.
But I don’t encourage anyone to be an artist. I try to encourage them to follow their own dreams. Being an artist, for me, is a bit of a hard life, and I can’t encourage someone to be an artist, because he’ll suffer. I’ve suffered a lot. Growing up, we were six, plus my mom and my dad. We grew up in two small rooms for eight people. One room was my mom and my dad’s bedroom, and the remaining room was kitchen, dining room, and kids’ bedroom. So I used to admire living a good life.
You think you have that now?
Maybe, almost. I’m trying to live now the life I used to admire.
But you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing, right?
Yeah. I can’t live without doing what I am doing. No art, no life.