“Welcome to my sanctuary”, Brian Kivuti says as he unlocks the door to his studio tucked away in a corner of Karen’s scenic greenery. He points to the wall on our right, where there’s a jewellery mood board in various stages of overhaul. The adjacent wall has art works he created during the ’30 paintings 30 days’ challenge that sit imperiously beside a white work station with jewellery he’s currently tinkering with. He walks through the multiple machinery and the mini photo studio to unpack his food stash behind his work desk. It’s going to be another late night; a fact he’s seemingly happy with. Which begs the question:
What inspired you to become a multidisciplinary artist?
I had no choice, honestly, I’ve always loved the arts. It was the only thing that I really wanted to do when I was in high school, so it was inevitable. It was born out of passion, but passion doesn’t answer all your questions. It just gives you the drive that you then must do something with.
So, how did you gravitate towards jewellery?
I didn’t really think to myself that ‘hey, I could be a jeweller’. The jewellery came as a reaction of a foundation course I did after high school. Art students were recommended to do this course to expose us to things we’ve never tried before to give us different perspectives. As I would walk to and from my life drawing classes, I would have to pass through the jewellery department; which had the pictures of the previous students’ work displayed in the corridors. Over time I started to wonder if I would be able to do that.
So, I went to ask the head of the department if he could tell if I could be a good jeweller by looking at my portfolio. He did and he thought I could be. I took his word for it and decided to go and study jewellery and silversmithing at Edinburgh College of Art.
What was your experience after you graduated in 2012?
I came back to Kenya and had the opportunity to intern for Erita E. Jewel, who is a gem dealer. Although I don’t specialise in gems, it was certainly valuable to expand my experience with stones and broaden my understanding of the gem industry.
I also interned for Adele Dejak for about a month and then I was fired. They made it very clear that my work wasn’t the problem. The best way I can describe it is that I’m just not employee material; which I completely understand. I’m not great at the conventional 9-5hours.
How did these two experiences shape the brand you have now?
Working in both places gave me an expansion in my appreciation for materials. Erita E. Jewel helped me to discover that, although I’ve always wanted to work with stones, it would be at some point much later on in my career. The reason is because I only want to work with Tanzanite, which is higher end and pricey. I like materials to be a certain way because I’ve gotten a better appreciation of what makes them truly stunning beyond their price. Through Adele Dejak, I got introduced to Ankole cow horn, bone and brass. I don’t think I would be working with Ankole cow horn [in my current project] if I hadn’t worked with Adele.
Seeing businesses that are more on the fashion end like Adele Dejak or the more traditional brands like Erita E, gave me a better idea of what I could be and what I wanted to become. I realised that I wanted to go more in the arty direction, focusing on self-expression and the artistry of what I’m doing. Concentrating on the fact that I’m not just a jeweller but a multidisciplinary artist, and then to find a way to weave them all together.
What terminology would you use to describe what you do?
I’m yet to figure that out… that’s why I call myself a treasure maker. My ultimate goal is to make treasure, regardless if it’s jewellery, clothes or paintings. I define treasure as something that is higher than you. Because you can make a trinket, but it becomes treasure when it becomes embedded in the collective psyche of what is valued. And to be able to have my work embody something that is intangible and valuable, that someone else can consider it to be valuable, that would blow my mind. I think that’s my idea of legacy.
Why is introspection such a focal point in your design?
I’m tempted to say it’s just my nature, but the more accurate answer would be that it’s a strong desire to find flow in my life; especially since I’ve experienced depression. I believe that the way to move forward, and to offer things of value, is to find alignment within myself.
What was your reason to keep the jewellery unisex?
I don’t make it with a man or woman in mind. If it just so happens to look more masculine or feminine, then that’s just the outcome. I find that jewellery is so flexible that it’s very difficult for someone to say that it belongs to a specific gender. The question becomes ‘does it work with your aesthetic’? If it looks good on you, that’s all that matters.
You must dedicate part of your studio for clients to try on your pieces?
Actually, my studio is fairly closed off. That’s why I want to stock at The Designers Studio, as well as, other stores. I try to keep it as private as possible to avoid becoming a professional host; to borrow a point from Neil Gaiman’s speech ‘Make Good Art’. Because I will want to pay attention to whomever is visiting and that will mean I can’t get work done.
So, you’ve been purely an online operation since you started?
Yes. But I’ve had my challenges with the overall process. The number of amateur mistakes I have made are just obscene. And most of it has something to do with my own learning curve. I say this because there are so many things that people don’t prepare you for when you’re setting up your own venture. One of the things is learning how to face your own flaws and learning how to make them meet the task at hand. It has been two years and it has taken me so long to get off the ground. In addition, I’m still aware of the things I need to learn, especially since I am a one-person team. Thank God for apps and the internet.
You started out under the name Treasure Makers in 2015 then changed to an eponymous title in 2016… why?
I realised the name ‘treasure makers’ created a box around me with the expectations of what success should look like as a designer. It also created the expectations in consumers that I should be making collections and doing so seasonally. So, I changed it to ‘Brian Kivuti’ specifically to embrace myself as a multidisciplinary artist and to encourage people to see me more as an individual, creating things.
The decision to come back to revaluating the roots of what I do, and especially looking at why I do it, helped me to find the answers I was looking for. The more I could answer the why, the more I could be able to solve everything else. I found that simple things like financial discipline came from answering ‘the why’ because it really prioritized me and helped me define what I can take and what I won’t tolerate.
Is there something you’ve made that has made you cringe?
I didn’t cringe, I cried. Because I struggle with the perfectionist aspect of myself which I think has held me back a lot in my twenties. [That said], those cringeworthy pieces have ceased to exist because I promptly melt them down to make new jewellery.
Why are you so drawn to silver as your core material?
Because it’s shiny! It’s also quite versatile allowing you to do a lot with it. There’s its tactility and malleability, as well as, the different finishes I can accomplish with it. I can choose to oxidise it to make it black or use chemicals to make it green. It can do all this, whilst maintaining an allure of preciousness. Because I use real silver, my pieces are worth something; be it as an heirloom or used for [pecuniary] support in tough times.
I have had some lust for gold and would like to work with it in future. There’s a radiant quality when you use large quantities of it and that’s how I want to use it when I can afford it. I’ll give you an example, if I had to make the facet bangle in gold, purchasing the raw material alone would be KSh130,000 for one bracelet. Compare that to the KSh15,000 it retails at in silver.
Working on any new projects?
There are two projects coming up that will work with new materials. It’s based on a deep sadness that I have experienced due to my inability to complete projects. That is, all the ideas I have borne in my mind that have failed to come to fruition because of overthinking, procrastination and perfectionism. Part of me is scared that they are past their time. Another part of me is scared that I’ll only create out of fear as opposed to creating out of passion and genuine expression. The process that I am in right now is finding a way to come to terms with that and finding a way forward
Actually, making stuff and getting to wear them too. I love what I do and engaging in my work makes me a better person. It makes it worthwhile dealing with the harder parts of [being an artist]. It’s also helped me overcome and thrive over some of the aspects of myself that aren’t so brilliant. This is a self-directed process and I love that.
What can we expect in 2018?
That’s a journey I’m going to discover. My style is very organic, and I usually have multiple projects running at the same time. I don’t think of myself as a business, so, my focus isn’t on creating stock. I’m thinking about creating works. That could be a mix of one-off pieces or reproductions. Time will tell.