Growing up, Cryus Kabiru had a love-hate relationship with his father’s bicycle, a classic roadster known across many parts of Eastern Africa as a ‘Black Mamba.” The young boy was tasked with keeping it clean in the crowded Nairobi slum he and his family called home. Today, these bicycles, which were once a common form of transportation across Kenya and many other parts of Africa, are the central focus of Kabiru’s latest project and something of a fixation for the young artist.
Named for their appearance as they creep over the horizon (slowly and quietly, like the poisonous snake), the bicycles hold a special place in Kabiru’s heart. His grandfather was gifted one upon his retirement. No one else was allowed to ride it. It remains untouched since his death, mounted on his grandmother’s wall in remembrance and reverence.
For the past 2 years, Kabiru has been quietly toiling away, creating 15 refashioned ‘Black Mamba’ roadsters. Using older bike parts and other discarded material, the elaborate work evokes the pieces from his celebrated C-STUNNERS collection – a range of futuristic eyeglasses fashioned from electronic refuse. His ‘Black Mamba’ project is steeped in nostalgia.
While the popularity of roadsters is on the rise amongst urbanites in the Western world, they are becoming something of a rarity in areas whose roads they traditionally filled. Kabiru, who has long been a fan of using trash as material in his work, used everything from old household appliances to rusted, discarded bottle caps to create his own interpretations of the declining two-wheelers.
Last year he debuted his documentary, The End of Black Mamba, at smac gallery in Cape Town. It looks at the dwindling use of the roadster as the loss of a historic icon. The rapid urbanisation of African cities has replaced them with more hazardous motor vehicles and, according to Kenya’s National Transport and Safety Authority, motorbike related deaths have been on a steady increase since 2005. For this reason, Kabiru also sees the demise of the ‘Black Mamba’ as a health and safety issue.
Honoured as one of 2016’s Quartz Africa Innovators, the visionary artist is adamant that this is only the beginning of what he hopes will become a long-term project: preserving the bike not only in its physical form but also in the stories of those who rode them. “I always say we here in Kenya never had visual art. We used to tell a story instead,” he told Quartz Africa. “Now I’m trying to make a story with an object. The bikes need to have a story behind them.”