His great grandfather was a prophet, his family tree peppered with traditional doctors. Laughing, Cyrus says that, like a traditional African doctor, he is a traditional African artist.
The tall, soft-spoken Cyrus Kabiru hammers a bottle top completely flat for a sculpture series he’s working on. Self-taught artist, sculptor and designer, he is a quiet observer, expressing the world around him through recycled object sculptures and free hand paintings.
“I know someone through eyes,” he says.
Eyes surround the compact square of studio space at Kuona Art Trust in Killeleshwa, Nairobi. Starkly white, black-rimmed bubbles pop out of colorful paintings, defining his cartoon-like style. Cyrus calls the little people that dot the canvas “funny funny”. His inspiration: the people he meets on nomadic travels around Kenya.
In city schools and rural villages, Cyrus teaches the meaning of art by showing people how to make their own with the objects around them. Cyrus explains that Kenyans would rather have a calendar than a painting on the wall of their home: “We believe that white people are the ones who buy art.” Art in Kenya has long been associated with witches and witch doctors. Christian missionaries also played a part when, in rooting out tribal religion, many condemned sculptures in people’s homes as icons for worship.
Cyrus remains forthright: “According to me, the best art in the world is coming from Africa.” He has reason to be optimistic; Nairobi is already a hotbed of artistic creation in Kenya and the African continent. Courted by the Kenyan and overseas press, his series of sunglasses, all constructed from found objects—spoons, wire, calabashes, bottle tops, bones—earned him fame. “My work shows and teaches how to care for the environment, and this is what we are lacking in our society.”
He holds a pair of checkered glasses, the size and shape of his hands. “I call this ‘Identity’. You can’t work in Africa without an identity, a fingerprint,” explains Cyrus. Identity in the abstract sense, but also in the practical. “You can’t work without an identity card, also,” he adds—a reminder that as an artist, he remains rooted to the reality of life in Africa and that his art is representative of this.
Cyrus often gives one piece of art two names. The black and white checkered hands with outspread fingers (a show piece for Lady Gaga perhaps), the same that represent identity, Cyrus also calls “Westernized Print”. “West people, they can touch something and make it or break it,” he says. Within a single pair of sunglasses Cyrus captures both a still existent colonial tension and the art that can give a voice to Kenyans. “Our generation is growing, changing. We are rolling this rock of art.”