When Mark Coetzee came to Kenya to confer with art aficionados about which artists they would recommend to include in the opening exhibition of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocaa), he were amazed to find the lists he received did not include Cyrus Kabiru.
The Zeitz Mocaa curator and executive director had just seen Cyrus’ one man exhibition “The End of the Black Mamba’ at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town and already knew his C-Stunner specks were going to part of the grand opening [on September 15] of the world’s largest museum of contemporary African and Diasporan art.
But if Mr Coetzee was surprised, Cyrus was not.
“Art is war and I’ve been in this battle for quite some time,” said one of only two Kenyan artists (Wangeci Mutu is the other) whose artworks were not only selected to be in the grand opening of what had once been a nine-story grain silo but now, after a grandiose overhaul, is the leading cultural attraction of the V&A Waterfront, one of the most popular entertainment centres in Cape Town.
Cyrus’s now world-renowned C-stunners sculptures were also bought to become part of the German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz’s permanent art collection.
“24 C-stunners are now in the museum’s permanent collection,” Cyrus told the Business Daily the same night he came back from Cape Town.
“They also got 24 photographs of the C-Stunners.”
At the opening, only the photographs had been hung in one second floor gallery.
“They said they hadn’t had time to put up the [specks] before the opening but they’ll do it,” he added.
But since his photographs occupy the whole room, Cyrus isn’t disappointed. Zeitz Mocaa also didn’t buy his quirky bicycle sculpture. But that didn’t bother him either since the bikes, made with the same meticulous craftsmanship, creativity and originality of design as his specks, were on display at SMAC.
That’s the gallery that Cyrus has been affiliated with since 2014 when he first went to Cape Town to be part of a Guinness ad campaign called ‘Made of Black’ and SMAC people saw his C-Stunners.
SMAC’s current exhibition, entitled ‘Pandashuka’, has already been critiqued by some of the world’s leading art critics.
Writers like Mark Spiegler, who’s been ranked among the top 25 most influential individuals in the global art world, have praised Cyrus’ new show to the hilt. But just as his specks are not really spectacles, his bicycles are not really bikes.
Both begin with those basic concepts but then they’re reconfigured into highly original sculptures made out of either junk that Cyrus collects or ordinary utility items like spoons and forks, auto or bicycle spare parts, lids from kitchen bottles and cans, and metallic wires, some store-bought, others procured by sundry means.
He can incorporate almost anything into his ingenious works which are all one-of-a-kind.
But his art hasn’t always been highly valued or even understood, especially by family members who conventionally believed he was wasting his life doing art. (That’s one reason why he describes art as ‘war’ which he’s found has many battle fronts.) But his family has largely changed their tune now that they’ve seen how he’s managed to earn a good living, start a family and invest his earnings well.
Getting his art bought by Zeitz Mocaa might seem like a rare pinnacle of success for this 32-year-old artist. But actually, Cyrus’ art has been exhibited and sold to leading public institutions and private collections all over the world.
Even so, he admits it’s been a long journey to arrive at where he is today.
The need to stay focused and concentrate on his art is one reason why he moved out of his studio at Kuona Trust two years back and into his own solo studio in Machakos County.
“I’d like to expand the studio into a residence where artists can come from all over and work for some time,” he says.
‘‘My friends call my place the ‘Away Studio’ since it seems far away to them, but I prefer to be on my own and keep a low profile as well,” he adds.
Cyrus isn’t the only local artists who’s moved out of institutional settings like Kuona Trust and GoDown Art Centre in recent times.
“I’m feeling the local art scene is changing rapidly. Some of it is sad since the institutions seem to be losing ground. But I think it’s good that artists are branching out and becoming more independent. It’s better for them in the long run.”