All we see are masks now, not faces. The surgical and veiled stylings do as much to isolate people as to protect them. We regard the mask as symbolic of a ‘new normal’, but masks themselves aren’t new. They’ve always had a vital part in history, myth and folklore, unconsciously seeping into identity. Cyrus Kabiru’s hyper-stylised masks/eyewear tease apart these various strands to create a new vision.
The Kenyan artist juxtaposes the symbolic value of the mask - as established through its past - with an inherent futuristic vision, an ideology constructed through the materials he uses to build them. They’re like a cyberpunk update of ancient tribal headgear, constructed by both mad scientist and junkyard explorer.
Kabiru’s elaborate face gear, or ‘optical sculptures’, actually do come from trash, picked up from the streets of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. These raw materials become refashioned into peacocking facepieces, large, colourful and challenging configurations that recontextualise what would normally be thrown away - or specifically, had already been.
Picking things up off the streets give the components a unique tie to the place they’re found. Their original intention has been experienced or consumed and now it lays idly for another shot at life, resurrected by Kabiru into something more magnificent than it could ever have imagined.
These objects are adorned with bottlecaps, packaging and associated trimmings. Viewing his process and mindset as “one of nature’s soldiers”, he’s carrying out a task, combatting the side effects of consumption and waste, as part of a larger capitalist society. It would be unfair to consider his works primarily as a critique of capitalism, but the undertones of reinventing branded trash into something ornamentally worn can’t be overlooked.
I can’t help but think of the phrase ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’. This can readily be applied to Kabiru’s works. Not simply that he values the trash, but that he actually imbues them with value, both economically and culturally, where the creations become important to who he is, but also who Kenyan’s are. What does the society throw away, what do they consume? How could a perspective change, like the artist’s here, create more large-scale behavioural changes?
Ingenuity is an undervalued skillset in today’s society, where there are affordable solutions for almost any common need, rendering it a muscle that isn’t getting much work. It isn’t that way all over the world though, particularly in poorer parts, where we see ingenuity in everyday life sprouting like unheralded miracles, with true need being a stronger driver than any want could ever be.
This crossroad is where it all started, with the young artist asking his dad for a pair of glasses or at least the money to get them. His dad refused, telling him to make his own. Many would shrug off the suggestion. Kabiru embraced it. Starting his own hustle, trading homework for his trash sculptures, he had found a way out - a path - and it was all thanks to the glasses.
His project has spanned since his childhood, although not officially. The glasses have transformed into more elaborate masks, but the ethos is the same. If you want it, you can get it. Your limit is not who’s around you or where you are, but how much you’re willing to do to get it. Nowadays, the mask represents both top-down safety and oppression of civil liberty. For Kabiru - the mask is always freedom.
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