Cyrus Kabiru had humble beginnings but the work he is currently doing for the Kenyan arts community is big and bold.
Growing up in Korogocho, one so-called ‘slum’ in Nairobi that sits just next to the biggest trash mountain in the city, Cyrus was turning trash into priceless treasures long before he officially opened his own ‘Art Orodha’ or Trash Art Studio not far from Thika town.
“Growing up, I knew people who felt depressed living so close to trash, But I always looked at junk as something I could use to make into something new,” says Cyrus as he takes a pause from welcoming visitors who he’d invited to Orodha’s opening day last weekend.
For him, things discarded as useless deserve to be given a new life, which is what he’s wanted to do since childhood.
Admitting he wasn’t a high-scoring student in either primary or secondary school, Cyrus says he used to create what he now calls ‘C-stunners’ or recycled-wire spectacles and give them to the boys who would take exams for him.
On Orodha’s opening day, Cyrus has no C-stunners available to give away or sell. One reason is because he has moved on to a new recycled junk art series, this time creating funky radios out of junk.
The other reason is because the few that remain are on display at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town where he says they sell on average for Sh9000 a pair, although some have sold for as much as Sh20,000.
Recalling how he literally gave away his recycled-wire specs when he first brought them to Kuona Trust, Cyrus says one young woman he gave a pair to later sent him Sh700. “That was the first time they made me money,” he says.
In fact, when he first came to Kuona in the early 2000s, he didn’t think of bringing his wire specs with him since he thought it would be seen as ‘childish’ for him to be making them.”
But then his friend and fellow artist Dennis Muraguri advised him to bring his glasses to Kuona and not be bothered by what anyone thought. And sure enough, nobody cared. Instead, everyone seemed to want one of them. It wasn’t long thereafter that Cyrus became something of an international phenomenon with his C-stunners gracing everything from magazine covers and books jackets to exhibition spaces all the way from Hollywood and Washington, DC to London, Paris and Milan among other places.
Cyrus’s good fortunes are what inspired him to dream of having an art space of his own. It also inspired him to want to build that space large enough to start an artist-in-residence program which could accommodate at minimum three and as many as six or seven artists (be they local or international) who wanted to learn how to give a ‘second life’ to junk just as he continues to do.
Currently, he has three young artists working at Orodha. The first one to come was George Kamiti who was already working with junk when he heard Cyrus speak to Kenyatta University’s Fine Art Department. Kamiti was instantly drawn to the idea of being mentored by Cyrus. He’s been working with him at Orodha ever since.
The second was his life-long friend from Korogocho, John Ndumia who Cyrus encouraged to come. Now Ndumia has the space just next to Kamiti’s and he’s working closely with his old friend.
And the third artist is a recent graduate of KU, Faith Wambui who had heard about Cyrus from a friend who suggested she go visit Orodha personally.
“I came one day late last year and was so impressed with what I saw and with Cyrus that I applied right away. I had to wait for some time, but finally my application was approved and I’ve been here ever since,” says Faith who had been a weaver and textile artist before she began working with junk.
“Cyrus encouraged me to experiment, so now I mix hand-woven cotton or wool with junk.
The opening of Orodha was filled with local artists who had been invited to come see the three green metal containers that Cyrus had transformed into a proper studio space. “Orodha is not a gallery,” he says emphatically. “It’s a studio where artists come to work.”
Cyrus also plans to build apartments at Orodha for artists to come from a distance and stay for a time. But he says that plan is still in the works.