Cyrus Ng’ang’a Kabiru has been transforming trash into everything from toys, trucks, wild creatures ever since he was a little boy growing up near the Dandora dump site.
He only stopped when he was told to ‘put away childish things’ since it was time undergo the ‘rite of passage’ (circumcision) and become a man. Nonetheless, not even cultural traditions could cure Kabiru of his creativity bug. The dumpsite was just too big a temptation.
Where others saw garbage, he saw glorious possibilities for transforming tin cans and soda bottle tops into little treasures which he would often give away to classmates who’d do him small favours.
‘I didn’t know art could earn me money,’ Kabiru says, having just returned from Los Angeles where he only gave a TED talk on the topic “Giving Trash a Second Chance.”
He also had a major exhibition of his C-Stunner eye-wear sculptures which have been featured everywhere from CNN (on March 22nd) and Facebook to a Goethe Institute catalogue of Kenyan photography and YouTube!
In the last few years, he’s been interviewed, videoed and photographed in numerous languages on as many publications and programmes. One of his C-Stunners was even on the cover of CLASH magazine, being worn by the Black American R&B singer-songwriter Bobby Womack.
But don’t imagine all this adulation has gone to Kabiru’s head. I asked one of his Kuona colleagues, Dennis Muraguri, whether Cyrus (as he’s fondly known), had become ‘a celeb’ like so many young Kenyans claim to be. Muraguri’s response was classic: “Cyrus has always been a celebrity!” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
In fact, for as long as I have known Cyrus, I’ve felt it was only a matter of time before he would be ‘discovered’ as the next notable contemporary African artist. His C-Stunners are not the only stunning ‘trash art’ that he creates.
At his Kuona studio, he also has everything from life-size crocodiles and birds to Buddha-like beings all made out of metal wires and colourful soda and beer bottle tops.
He’s had several exhibitions in Nairobi, at Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise, Village Market and Kuona Trust. But it is only since the late 2011 that his C-stunner sculptures have been shown abroad, first in the Netherlands at the Kunst Podium Gallery in Tilburg; then in 2012 in the UK at the London School of Fashion and in Turkey at Istanbul’s Galata Gallery.
In 2013, he not only gave a highly successful TED Talk (at a Technology Entertainment & Design Forum) in LA; he also gave a similar talk (about ‘Giving Trash a Second Chance’) at several schools and colleges in the area.
Featured in the CNN video clip that one can find online, one can watch Kabiru teaching 11 year olds about conservation and creativity at the UCLA Lab School. The video captured the kids’ delight as they wore their own versions of Stunner eye-ware and got a brand new view of garbage as potential material for making art.
In the next fortnight, Kabiru will be travelling again, this time to speak in Milan at the Afro Future Workshop. Then later this year, he’ll also exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York.
Explaining that one reason he loves recycling trash is because he “loves nature”, Kabiru added that if all the world’s garbage got recycled into contemporary art, the world would be a healthier and more beautiful place.
Combining conservation and creativity is just one of the reasons Kabiru and his C-Stunners were such a hit in LA where he was literally wined and dined for two weeks straight. It also had to do with his easy-going skill as a storyteller.
Like so many East African artists whose art is a reflection of some imaginative story they have in their heads, Kabiru can spin a great story based on his C-Stunners. In fact, he has a whole series on everything from prisons and dictators to animals, both domesticated and wild.
He even has a series on ‘boobs’ he says. “Boobs from the Caribbean and Kenya, from Australia, Holland and America,” he adds with a cheeky grin on his face.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of humour reflected in all of Kabiru’s art. That is a large part of his C-Stunners’ charm. So whether he uses bottle tops, bits of mabati (corrugated iron), copper wire or spare parts, Kabiru’s eye-wear sculptures are exceedingly original; he’s one of a kind and so is each one of his C-Stunner shades.
Originally, Cyrus would sell his C-Stunners for Sh1,000, but by the time he left the US last month, people were begging to buy them for US$3,500 (Sh297,500) a piece.