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 slum in Nairobi, next to a dumpsite, Kabiru was turning trash into treasure long before he opened Art Orodha, a space for upcoming artists, near Thika town, some 42km northeast of Nairobi.
“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,” said Kabiru as he takes a pause from welcoming visitors who he’d invited to Art Orodha’s official opening day last weekend.
Admitting that he wasn’t a high-scoring student in either primary or secondary school, Kabiru said he used to create what he calls “C-stunners” or recycled-wire spectacles and give them to the boys who would take exams for him.
On Art Orodha’s opening day, Kabiru had no C-stunners available. The few that remain are on display at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town, where he says they sell for about for $90 a pair, although some have sold for as much as $200. He has since moved on to a new recycled art series, creating radios out of junk.
Recalling how he literally gave away his recycled-wire specs when he first brought them to Kuona Trust, Kabiru says one young woman he gave a pair to later sent him $7. “That was the first time they made me money,” he says.
When he first came to Kuona in the early 2000s, he didn’t bring his stunners with him since he thought it would be seen as “childish” to be making them.
But then his friend and fellow artist Dennis Muraguri advised him not be bothered by what anyone thought. And sure enough, everyone seemed to want a pair. It wasn’t long thereafter that Kabiru became something of an international phenomenon, with his C-stunners gracing everything from magazine covers and book jackets to exhibition spaces all the way from Hollywood and Washington, DC to London, Paris and Milan.
Kabiru was inspired to build that space large enough to start an artist-in-residence programme, which could accommodate as many as seven artists — local and international.
There are three artists working at Art Orodha. George Kamiti, who was already working with junk, Kabiru’s life-long friend from Korogocho, John Ndumia, and recent graduate of Kenyatta University, Faith Wambui, who heard about Kabiru when a friend suggested she visit Art Orodha.