Interview with Cyrus Kabiru – Visual Artist from Nairobi, Kenya

Cyrus Kabiru - Visual Artist - Nairobi, KenyaCyrus Kabiru was born in Nairobi and also went to school in Nairobi. He is a self taught artist. His studio is at the Kuona Trust in Nairobi. Cyrus is currently a painter as well as a sculptor. He works with recycled products, and his signature is the unique eye glasses that he makes with various waste materials.

You can connect with Cyrus on Facebook or email him for more information and to purchase his art.

View Cyrus Kabiru’s portfolio. You can also view his artwork after the interview below.

ExtraImaginary: Cyrus, can you please give us a background of yourself?

Cyrus Kabiru: I am an artist. A visual artist, not a … you know there are many different kinds of artists: visual, performing … so I am a visual artist. I work with everything – Painting, Sculpture, Recycled, … everything. So when I started art, I was at an early age. I come from a slum in Kenya. So I used to see junk. Everyday, I woke up, the first thing I would see is junk. So I mix painting together with junk.

ExtraImaginary: When did you first see yourself as an artist?

Cyrus Kabiru: The time I sold my first painting. I sold my first painting when … first I never knew that art is for sale … to me art was like a hobby. So selling my first piece, I sold it for 900 shillings (approximately 12 USD). I am now trying to get it back from the guy who I sold it to, cause I want to put it in my collection. And it was nice. I sold it for 900. I thought I was cheating. I thought I can’t sell art. It is hard to sell art. So, yeah … the time I sold my first painting is the time that I knew I can be an artist. I thought … that guy loved my work … how? So I tried to work hard at art. I can’t do anything else now … just art.

ExtraImaginary: What medium do you use for your artwork?

Cyrus Kabiru: For painting I use acrylic on canvas and sometimes oil paints. But I don’t like oil paints cause I don’t like that smell of oil paints. Acrylic is fast dry, and I don’t have that patience of waiting for oil to dry. Like oil it will take two days to dry. So I use acrylic. Its fast dry. For recycled I use … for now I am working on sculpture using bottle tops. I made my first sculpture in 2005. I worked with plastic bags and also built a lion that was 7 feet by 3 feet. For now I am working with bottle top, metal, wire, and wood. For the metal work, I use pliers, hammers and nails. For the paintings, I use brushes and palette knives.

ExtraImaginary: Tell us about the process of creating your work from your first inspiration to completion?

Cyrus Kabiru: First of all, my paintings, I am inspired by walking. When I walk, I get crazy things in my head. That is why I prefer to stay far from my studio. Because when I walk, I am inspired by many things. Maybe drivers, matatus (Kenyan buses). My paintings are joking … they are for fun. You can look at it and start laughing yourself. When I walk I also get the recycled materials like bolts, bottle tops, wire, so I get my inspiration through walking.

ExtraImaginary: You have some very interesting pieces – the eye glasses. Tell us about those.

Cyrus Kabiru: The spectacles … I love them. I think everyone loves them. Like now there is a lady – she works with a UK magazine. She is trying to send them to the UK. Even you, you love them. My first spectacles, I made when I was three years old. I did not even know how to wear clothes. I used to walk naked – you know like African kids do. You must walk naked – we didn’t know about clothes because maybe you’ll dirty them and your mother don’t want to wash your clothes so you just stay without clothes. My first one, I made it with wire. I grew up in a place where it was hard to save money to buy glasses. So I decided to make them out of wire and I made it … in the streets there were some bad boys and if they see it they will steal it. So I go and I work and I work, I made many then even one day I made a strong one. Then I was in high school. But even when I was in high school it was hard for me to study because I started drawing at the back of my book instead of writing notes. I couldn’t go tell my father I wanted a new book, so I used to try to sell that piece I draw in order to buy another book. My father didn’t love art also so I used to paint at night. I used to sleep just a few hours. They slept at 11. I woke up at 12. I pretend that I’m sleeping. I paint till 4 and then sleep and wake up for school at 6. Then before I start my homework, I paint, make glasses with paper. To me study is … I never did homework. My neighbor used to read and I used to copy her homework. I used to exchange my paintings for notes. So if a teacher gave us a note to write down, I would tell my neighbor to write it for me and I would draw and give her my piece of work. So life was like that.

ExtraImaginary: Do you have a favorite piece of work you have done?

Cyrus Kabiru: My favorite piece of work … I don’t have. Every new piece I do is my favorite. And my favorite and your favorite are different. So for now I don’t have a favorite piece of work.

ExtraImaginary: Do you have any favorite artists and who inspires you?

Cyrus Kabiru: I think everyone. To me, everyone … African artists. Everyone loves African art. Even a mzungu (White person) paints African. If you look very closely, paintings of Wazungu (White people), they are from Africa. So to me, I love every artist from Africa. I love African art. So if you did African art, you are my favorite artist.

ExtraImaginary: How do you overcome creative blocks?

Cyrus Kabiru: To me when I start a piece, I will make sure I finish it. I cannot start another one until I finish the first one. And I can’t do a piece without that mentality … that creativity. So first, I paint my painting in my head. Then I translate it to the canvas. So its hard to be confused by the materials and ideas.

ExtraImaginary: What are your goals in regards to your art?

Cyrus Kabiru: First, for now I am planning to have an exhibition. I want to make sure Kenyans to know about art. You know for now they don’t know about art. They say art is for wazungu (White people), art is for the rich. No, art is for everyone. My plan is to have an exhibition for old guys like my grandmother and grandfather. You know they used to make the baskets using the banana leaves, sticks, and stuff like that. So I am planning to have an exhibition of those things. People from Central Province, Nyanza, Coast and maybe have an exhibition in Nairobi. That is the project that I will try to make sure I do. I know this will finish the tribal conflicts. You know some years back there was fights in Kenya because of I am Kikuyu, you are Luo – tribal conflicts. So my idea is to show people how art is … to show Kenyan art and African art to people. Taking back art to us and also finishing the tribal conflicts in Kenya. Because, if I hold an exhibition from Nyanza to Central (provinces in Kenya), Luo and Kikuyu, they will meet. So they will forget about tribal differences. And you know, the old people, they are the ones who cause the tribal conflicts in Kenya. So they will talk to one another … Kikuyu-Luo, Kikuyu-Mkamba, Kikuyu-Kisii, all of them, and they will understand that Kikuyu is not like this, Mkamba don’t do witchcraft, Luos don’t throw stones. So when they meet, they will say … they are good, they are good, and they will talk to their sons … no don’t hate those people because they are this and this … I think … my idea will be okay I think.

ExtraImaginary: is there anything else you want people to know about you?

Cyrus Kabiru: yeah let me tell my people that I will do … I am on the way and will do the new things … creative things. I want to tell the Kenyan youth not to depend on their parents too much. Like, me I can’t depend on my parents for now. Because my father don’t love art. Where I am now, its because of me. I never believe in my parents. You know people here, they believe my father has a plot somewhere, he has a vehicle. No, that is his wealth, not yours. So me, I am trying to find mine. Yeah, so Kenyan youth, African youth, don’t wait for your father’s wealth, try to look yours. Like me, I come from far. Can you imagine working, doing art and where you live, they don’t recognize art, they don’t know art. They will see a sculpture and say this is for witchcraft, don’t do these things, this is the one that will make you not to study. And for now, I am eating art, I am living art. I will live art. Just that.

ExtraImaginary: What do you feel about the state of art in Kenya and what needs to be done to popularize it?

Cyrus Kabiru: For now I think, our generation now, we are just rotating art. You know, like earlier times, it was like twisted. Like in January we are having an exhibition on why East African art are not known like West African art. You can look at West African art and see this is from West Africa. But its hard to see art work and say this is from East Africa. Now us as a young generation, we want to show people we have art. And you know the problem in Kenya, let me say in East Africa, they love money so if a Mzungu (White man) comes and says I want something like a masai, they leave their style and go and draw a masai and sell it. We need to finish those things. For now if you need a masai, I will send you to some guy who does masai art. Not me. I wouldn’t do it. If you want a portrait, I will send you to an artist who can do a portrait. If you want metal work, I can do it for you cause I deal in metal. If you want a painting, I can do it for you. So we want to put such things in order. Not, I want a table made of wire and I have never done an art piece of wire. And then I try to say I will do it. We want to change such things.

ExtraImaginary: Cyrus, thank you for your time. You really are ExtraImaginary.

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  • I liked the “process of creating”, the artist Cyrus Kabiru narrated here.

  • Hi Cyrus, I was surfing the internet when I happened across your website. You sound fascinating and I love your work. The reason I was surfing the web is that I am looking for acrylic paint for empower women from the slums of Mathare, Ngong. I was helping at the Jukumu Letu Center in Ngong. It is a daycare for women to bring the children to a safe place where they will get at least 2 meals a day and start their education. These children from 0-5 would otherwise be left at their hovel alone. I brought 100 pounds of yarn for the Inspire knitting group. I backed the rabbit group. And, i started a painting group. I brought stencils and t-shirts, stencil brushes and acrylic paint. The response was overwhelming. I received emails that the women love the painting. I couldn't find acrylic paint while I was there. They will paint the t-shirts or whatever and sell at market to help feed their babies. The shipping cost for paint from the USA is incredibly expensive. I'm hoping I can find paint either wholesale or retail there. If I can find someone to donate even better. The women are so creative. I just love to see the joy on their faces when they are being creative. They are getting a sense of self worth. If you can get me any of this information, I would truly appreciate it. I will be back in 4-6 months to inspire and help these wonderful women and children. Would enjoy meeting you too. Hopefully, you will be at a gallery when I return. Asante sana, Susan Pierce I'm on facebook, Susan Pierce