“We have that problem in Kenya where a lot of the artists are selling ‘poverty’ and tell you some story about their background so that you can buy their artworks. I try and not tell people about my background at all. We all have stories, sad stories, but I want you to buy my work because of the creativity. I’M tryING TO sell the creativity and not the poverty.”
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
PHOTOGRAPHY: SMAC GALLERY
You made your first prototypes of the C Stunners when you were really young. What was the drive behind making these glasses or eyewear in general?
I think it’s your background. What I do is me and my dad is the one who inspired me, all my art has been inspired by my dad. If you look at the bicycle and you look at the glasses, he never let me have real glasses. “Cyrus no, if you want real glasses you must make your own glasses”, he said. I had grown up being really good at making toys. In order to hang around with the older generation (I always walked around with older people) and in order for them to accept me, I had to be more creative than them so that I could fit it in. So I used to make them something, like a bus toy, a belt, glasses or masks. They used to like to challenge me and in order to walk with them or go and swim with them I had to come up with something in order to get their respect. My brother was older than me and I was 4th in line so in order to walk around with them I used to make things for them. In school I would exchange things for someone else’s notes, homework or even exams, I would give them an artwork. I never studied like sitting down in class and revising for my exam, that’s how I grew up. So after I finished high school I was supposed to go to college or university, but I realised that I was going to have to be very serious and dedicate all my time to my studies.
What was your father’s trade and what sort of skills did he pass on to you, was a he creative man like yourself?
No, my dad is a businessman. He is creative with business. He is someone that would show you how to fish but not how to eat fish. Like I used to try and study hard and he would say that he would buy me a bicycle if I performed well and then I would perform well but he still would not get me a bicycle. He showed me how to fish and he showed me that I couldn’t just get something for free. I needed to work hard for it and get it myself. I never had the mindset that after I studied I would get a good job, I never thought about that and I never sat down thinking about how I am going to get a job, I just had to keep going and that helped me a lot.
How did your work first get noticed and how did it lead up to your first big exhibition?
As I said, I used to make my work in exchange for things and I never thought that I could sell my work. Basically, my first artwork I had sold to my uncle because I never thought that my art can sell, and I hid from him after that because I thought that I had done the wrong thing by selling it to him. Meanwhile, he was hiding from me because he thought that he had paid too little for it. Then we met again and he said that he felt that he should give me some more money for my artwork. I eventually started selling my glasses in 2009 and the reason why I started selling them was that I felt that everybody wanted me to make them something. In order to turn them down I started to charge people for them. Then there was a lady that came from America, from Brooklyn and she was the first person to buy a pair of my glasses. At first I did not want to sell them to her but she insisted that I could not give them to her for free. So she gave me about 60 dollars and she said, “Cyrus, I want more!” So she started buying more of them from me. She was a model who is into fashion and she just wanted them for herself, then later I also sent some to her. So that’s really how I started selling them.
And the name ‘C STUNNERS’?
‘Stunners’ is something that you see that looks stunning and the ‘C’ in front is for Cyrus.
WHICH was the first gallery that you showed your work?
The first gallery show I did was in 2010, in Nairobi and was done by the KUONA TRUST (Centre for the Visual Arts). They were selling for 50 dollars but there were hardly any sales. I think I sold maybe one. It was more of an exhibition to showcase my work. After that I was invited to Ted Talks and they organised an exhibition for me afterwards in Santa Monica, California where I did an installation of my glasses. At that time I did not believe much in exhibitions and how people judged you on your exhibitions. For instance, if you have done one solo show then you become a professional artist, but I rather focused on working hard and letting the work speak for itself. I’m trying hard to change that mindset in Kenya, that not just one solo show makes you a professional artist. You must keep on working hard at it. You must sell your creativity and not just a story. We have that problem in Kenya where a lot of the artists are selling ‘poverty’ and tell you some story about their background so that you can buy their artworks. I try and not tell people about my background at all, or poverty. We all have stories, sad stories, but I want you to buy my work because of the creativity. I try and sell the creativity and not the poverty.
What inspires a certain shape or style that comes out within the frames of the artworks?
When I make the glasses the material that I use inspires me. Sometimes it dictates because of the material that I have available to me at the time. I never do sketches or follow any pre-sketches of any of the designs. I feel like the sketch will become my boss and I am the boss, I won’t follow my sketch. I try to express what I have, so the design of the glasses will depend on the material that I’m using or on a story that I have in my head. You find that some of them have serious stories. I have a mask series, a wild animal series and the Kenyan boobs series. Also, the prison series focusing on different prisons in Africa, even a Robben Island one called “Madiba Prison.” I just sit down and try to imagine what that prison looked like, and make the glasses relate to what I am thinking.
Now with your new bicycle series called ‘Black Mamba’ will you only be focusing on the new sculptures or will you continue doing the ‘Stunners’ along side the new work?
I call the glasses by a Swahili word – ‘Babayao’, Baba means father. It means they are the father or the source. My glasses are ‘Babayao’ because everything I am doing, most of the ideas came from my glasses. So I won’t stop making the glasses and I feel cool when I do the glasses. When I feel I need to relax then I do the glasses. The bicycles I am working with are also inspired by my father. Like I mentioned before, he said that he would buy me a bicycle if I preformed well at school. So one day he came home with a bicycle frame with no wheels, no handlebars and no seat. He was like, “Cyrus I have something for you” and I was very happy having it, without even the wheels or anything. So everyday I would try and work on something on the bicycle. I started on the wheels and I spent a month doing research on how I can make my own wheels. But, then that project would end up becoming trying to make a Ferrari out of a wheelbarrow or I tried to make a sea. Everything that I would try and make would lead to other projects. All of these ideas came from having that one bicycle frame. My dad would see me work and sometimes laugh at me. He would tell me that my ideas would never work but it only made me work harder. At the end of the day he would say, “Ok, I like the way you are thinking.”
That actually helped me a lot because I missed a lot of bad things while I was growing up, like using drugs or becoming a criminal. Where I grew up in Nairobi some of my neighbors were drug dealers. I grew up thinking different than the other kids and my family used to think that I am using something. Because I don’t think the way they do and I’m totally different. They thought maybe I was smoking something. I grew up with the criminals but I never wanted to be one of them. Some of them would even follow me around because they wanted to learn how I think. I used to have a studio while I was still in school and most of the gangsters were chilling in my studio. Some of them were wanted by the police at the time, but when they came to hang out in my studio I could see their minds changing and how they were communicating with my work. They were in a way protecting me and they wanted to know what I do or eat in order to think the way I do. They would interview me and asked me why I did certain things within my work and how did I end becoming who I am. So I feel that my way of thinking and my art changed some people, which is a good thing.
Black Mamba refers to an old bicycle. Why is it called Black Mamba and where does the name of a snake fit into the equation?
In Kenya we call those bicycles ‘Black Mamba’. The people who live in the rural or desert areas can see something coming on the horizon from very far away, slowly and quite like a snake. They were basically the only forms of transportation and like a Mamba they can survive on any terrain, all over. It’s a very old name and my dad used to have a Black Mamba, and my Grandfather had one. Nowadays it’s sad to see them disappearing.
Where did the bicycles come from originally?
They came from China but they ended up doing really well in Africa. We took it and made it our own. If you ask a lot of people they will tell you that it is an African bicycle and they are locally made. As I said, my dad had one of them and he used to do business with it. He extended the back carrier and he would send me to go and get maize and flour. The bicycle had an alarm and he would switch it on so you could hear him coming for miles. The kids would know when he was coming and they used to have this song about my dad and his bicycle, they called him ‘Baba John’ (father of John). John is my brother. They would run after him and chant his name – ‘Baba John, Baba John’, my father loved kids and he would be riding and smiling like a king! They would try and help my dad offload things from the bicycle. My grandmother used to think that the Mamba was very important in those days and in their village my grandfather had one of the first Black Mambas, nobody was allowed to ride it. So after he passed away in 1994 she had it mounted inside the house, on the wall. These days a lot of people do that with the old bicycles, they respect them. They are proud of them and they can all give you a story of their bicycle. That’s what I am doing now with my documentary on the ‘Black Mamba’. I want to know everyone’s stories about the bicycles. Most of the younger people are riding motorbikes now. The more I learn about the story of the Mamba the more I find pieces of history.
So the first short documentary that you made ‘The end of the Black Mamba’, will that eventually lead to a longer film about the bicycles?
The first one I made was not really the one I wanted, it’s not the best quality but it was my first video ever and I never thought I would do something with it. The second one will be a lot better because I learnt a lot through the first process. The second one I am doing in May and it will be out soon after that.
Are you coming back to Cape Town soon to do any more shows?
I am planning on coming back to do my residency around about June or July, here at the studio at SMAC. I would like to make Cape Town my second base and also come do a performance with the bicycles here. So I keep on moving back and forth throughout the year.