C-STUNNERS: African mask

Wait – your family didn’t know that you were an artist until you came here to TED?

They know that I’m an artist, but they never bothered about what kind of art I do. They didn’t know my artwork until this week. My sister has a Facebook page, but we’ve never been “friends.” Today she sent a friend request, and said, “Oh Cyrus, congrats. I saw your work. Keep it up.” So she discovered it today.

I live very far, far away from my family. It takes two hours from my father’s place to mine, driving.My mom and dad, they live at the eastern edge of Nairobi, and I live at the northern edge. I used to visit them every weekend. But now I visit them every two months.

Being an artist, for me, was that I was a rebel — I was a bit rude to everyone. I don’t care. I don’t follow what people want — I follow what I want. I don’t really like people. I want to go my own way. So I do everything the opposite to others, and they feel this guy is a bit of a rebel. When I was a little boy, grownups thought I was a bad example. They used to tell their kids, “Work hard. If you won’t work hard, you’ll be like Cyrus.” I was very different. I was always in my house, doing art, painting and making sculptures, and no one understood what I was doing. I didn’t study, I wore shaggy clothes. To them it was a bit weird. I didn’t know Sunday, I didn’t know Monday, I didn’t know.

In Africa, we live in a package.

What do you mean?

Monday you need to go to work up to Friday. Saturday you need to wash your clothes, you need to prepare for Sunday and Saturday. Sunday you need to go to church. You need to walk around in town and see friends. But me, I don’t have Sunday or Monday or Saturday. So if it’s visiting people, I visit any day, any time. I didn’t do homework, I didn’t study, I didn’t do exams.

But you didn’t fail at school?

All my classmates used to be much more clever than me. So they used to do homework for me. I’d pay them with artwork. “You do the exam for me, I’ll pay you in a sketch, sculpture, glasses, anything you want.”

You’ve been making glasses since you were a child?

Yeah. My dad is the one who wanted me to make the glasses: he challenged me to make them. He used to have real glasses when he was young. And one day, he messed with them and crushed them by accident. He was beaten by my grandmother because of this. So he hid the glasses from that day. And I used to admire wearing glasses when I was young. He used to say, “Cyrus, if you want to wear the glasses, maybe make your own glasses.” And that’s how I started making my own glasses. I was about seven years old.

So I think I did only one exam in my life. My dad used to be angry with me because of that. He knew. And I never performed well. After I finished high school, he said he wanted me to go to college to do electronic engineering. And I refused to join. I don’t like reading. Even after I finished high school, he used to say, “Cyrus, you know, I feel ashamed when I meet friends.” “Why?” “Because they keep asking the grades you got, your performance. And I feel ashamed to tell them.” And I was like, “Don’t listen to them. It’s my life.” And he said, “Okay.”

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