The Jaffa flea market was a favorite haunt for Cyrus Kabiru during the two months he spent in Israel earlier this year. A rising star in the international art scene, Kabiru was in the Holy Land on a residency as part of the Africa First project, founded by Tel Aviv art dealer Serge Tiroche.
Kabiru often incorporates found objects into his art, and the sprawling Jaffa market with its treasure trove of secondhand and discarded items kept him busy during his residency. Audio cassettes he found there helped express his interpretation of the Masada story in what he believes is one of his strongest works to date.
“Masada is a place with a powerful, hidden story and also a place that is disappearing,” the 35-year-old from Kenya tells The Times of Israel, explaining why outdated cassettes are a fitting symbol for the fading desert fortress with its concealed history.
By constructing the Masada piece in the shape of eyeglasses, Kabiru continues an ongoing series called C-Stunners in which he builds creatively-shaped spectacles out of found objects in order to tell stories.
Regular glasses, he notes, are for seeing better. “These are for seeing differently,” he says.
Using discarded electrical and computer parts, Kabiru also created glasses-shaped objects to convey his impressions of Jaffa and the Wailing Wall, which is known in Kenya as “the Famous Wall.” A work entitled “Menora,” however, follows the regular form of a Hanukkah candle holder. Each branch is made out of a bent fork and a small goblet, suggesting, says Kabiru, women carrying pots on their heads.
“When I heard the [Hanukkah] story of how an oil lamp was left to do all the work of giving light for many days, it made me think of how women in Africa are not recognized for the hard work they do,” Kabiru says.
Because of the fresh perspective that Kabiru offers, many art critics categorize his works as belonging to “Afro-Futurism.” The new genre is a post-colonial school created by African artists with their own forms of storytelling and a distinctive way of looking at the world which runs counter to stereotyped African images of jungles and poverty.
Kabiru points out that his stay in Israel also changed his preconceptions of the country, which were based on stereotypes of the Jewish state as a place of desert and war.
“The vendors in the Jaffa flea market that I hung out with treated me warmly. If I didn’t show up for a day or two they were concerned about me,” he recalls.
Kabiru’s art also contradicts many people’s expectations, explains Idit Toledano, an expert in African history and art.
“In the West, what many people know about art is based on their knowledge of Western art. But to appreciate African art you have to be familiar with the culture,” she says.
Toledano points out that Kabiru’s work is connected to his affinity for storytelling and the African talent for utilizing available materials.
“Kabiru is a member of the Kikuyu people, who are known for their tradition of storytelling. Many of his works derive from stories his grandparents told him,” she says.
Toledano notes that Kabiru’s trademark glasses series owes its origins to the fact that Kabiru’s father could not afford to buy him glasses when he was young.
“Consequently he decided, in his own creative way, to make his own,” she adds.
Kabiru’s works have been displayed in leading art galleries in New York and London. In addition to critical acclaim, his works have also shown steady commercial growth, with many C-Stunners purchased by art collectors at well over $10,000 each.
“African art has been overlooked for far too long,” says Israeli art dealer Tiroche.
The 53 year old grew up in the world of art thanks to his father, Jean Tiroche, an internationally-known Jaffa art dealer whose clientele included Jewish members of the École de Paris such as Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine.
Serge Tiroche initiated Africa First in 2017 to give African art more global exposure and African artists a chance to be inspired by their experiences in Israel. In addition to Kabiru, eight other Africans, including artists from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Togo have been invited to do residencies in Israel.
Tiroche’s own familiarity with African art grew out of an investment fund that he set up in 2011 in order to promote art from the developing world. Known as the Tiroche DeLeon Collection, the fund raised $20 million from private investors in order to purchase 500 works of art. Most of the initial purchases were from Asia, but over the years acquisitions expanded to Latin America and Africa. The fund, which aims to complete its sale of the acquired works of art by 2021, has already sold more than 100 works at an average profit of about 50 percent.
“The fund is about more than just earning a profit,” explains Tiroche. “We also lend the works in our collection to leading museums and galleries, giving the artists significant exposure all over the world. At the same time, the fund is a way for investors to get to know the art of the developing world.”
Kabiru’s Israel-inspired C-Stunners are currently on display at The African Studies Gallery in Tel Aviv in conjunction with an exhibit of traditional African ornamental beadworks collected and documented by Eti Dayan.
The exhibit, called “Beats of Beads,” is curated by Toledano, who notes that it is fitting to have Dayan’s collection exhibited side-by-side with the works of Cyrus Kabiru.
“He is one contemporary artist who regularly incorporates beads into his works,” she says.
An Israeli tour guide, Dayan has lived with the Maasai people in Kenya during the last 20 years. She is documenting and collecting beadworks with the goal of creating a museum that will preserve the vanishing traditions of the peoples of eastern Africa.