One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so it is no surprise that these Senegalese locals are repurposing recycled materials in the name of art and design.
Steel and oil barrels
For 15 years he repaired fridges. One day he made a chair out of recycled steel. Today Ousmane M’Baye conquers the world with his furniture made of steel and recycled oil drums. We meet M’Baye in Soumbedioune, a part of central Dakar, Senegal. There, on the street outside his old refrigerator workshop, he makes all the cabinets, chairs, armchairs, lamps and shelves he has designed and then ships everything to Paris, Barcelona, Belgium, Italy, USA and Japan. Today he has 10 people working for him, two of whom spend all their time scouring Dakar’s junkyards for good steel parts and oil barrels that can be used for his designed furniture.
“It’s been an amazing journey. I grew up in this district and it has always been a creative environment where people create something out of nothing. But I had no idea that I would become a designer,” M’Baye laughs. He left school as a 15-year-old dyslexic and started working in his father’s small workshop to repair refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioners. “Some like to call what I am doing African Art. I call it design, providing a casual, functional, object a soul, a direction. In retrospect, I have thought that I was subconsciously influenced by all home visits to various customers. I saw many different types of designs that I think I carried with me into my own creations,” he says.
After 15 years as frigoriste (the French word for refrigerator mechanic), he went through a midlife crisis and began experimenting with various steel and iron parts he found to make different objects. “Then I had no money to buy materials. But it taught me that all materials are unique with unique properties,” M’Baye explains. A friend of his saw a chair he made out of steel and an old cap to an oil drum. The friend, who has a house on the famous slave island Isle de Gorée just off Dakar, saw the potential in M’Baye’s ideas and ordered several chairs, tables and cabinets.
Once a year, all houses on the island (protected as UNESCO World Heritage buildings) open to the public. M’Baye’s friend encouraged him to make more furniture that she could sell when the tourists came. “All sold out the first day and then I began to understand that I was on the right track,” he said. Since then everything has been working at a record pace. He has received agents and representatives in Paris and elsewhere and taken part in trade fairs and exhibitions worldwide. When we met him, he was on his way to a furniture fair in Frankfurt and he’d also been approached by major design firms in Hong Kong. His furniture also sells in the U.S. and Japan. He remains connected to his roots by sticking to his run-down refrigerator workshop, where all his designed furniture is produced before distribution to chic boutiques all over the world. M’Baye’s success has allowed him to buy a large house in Médina where he grew up, which also serves as a showroom for his furniture and is only a few hundred metres from the workshop.
“Here are my roots, this is where I learned to think creatively without large resources. I do not want to lose touch with these roots just because I am successful,” says the designer. And if you walk around the district of Médina, you soon understand what he talks about. The creativity is endless as you see row after row of ‘makes and sales’ of beds, chairs, tables, dollhouses, bureaus and shelves in both wood and metal; here and there, stores have hundreds of products made from soda cans, tomato cans and other recycled metal that becomes a trivet, a toilet roll holder, picture frames, trays, toys, lampshades and ashtrays.
From sea to showroom
At the other end of Dakar (10 minutes by taxi) you find Grand Yoff, a huge, densely populated part of the city with sandy streets, much traffic and thousands of people in constant motion. Here, Mr Fara’s team of 12 carpenters creates furniture out of the colourful fishing boats or pirogues, found everywhere in Senegal. Once the idea of reviving the boats had occurred to Ramon Llonch, a textile designer from Barcelona and big fan of African colours and African creativity, he contacted Senegalese artisans and fishermen to see if the idea was feasible.
“I got the idea when I travelled through Senegal. What happens to all these stunning boats when they wear out? I started wondering if they could have a new life as chairs, tables and football tables,” he explains. “The crucial question was whether the weather had badly worn the boats or if they could have a new life. We were convinced it was possible. The wood used is from the tree Samba and it is very durable.” Llonch stresses, “There is still a strong tradition of craftsmanship and creativity in Senegal and I consider my role as that of an apprentice. I would never have managed to do this without their help.” The former sea pirogues have been upcycled as furniture in the form of tables, chairs and football tables that have made their way to trade shows and boutiques in Spain, France, Belgium, Italy and the USA.
Washing machines recycled
Another taxi ride through Dakar takes us to Gaelle K. Ciss, who describes herself as an art designer. She usually works with fabric design, but became interested in making designer furniture of products by upcycling ‘junk’. “I have always been fascinated by the splendour and the shape of washing machines and thought that it should be possible to make furniture of these parts,” she says and enlisted the help of three men from the street to complete the conversion of discarded washing machines into chairs, a table and magazine rack.
“These men live outside society and are considered by many to be problem-makers, but it they are good workers,” says Ciss, a member of the Senegalese artist group Tangalmenthe. “I did this mostly as an experiment, but now that I know it is possible and there are people who can do the practical part, I may continue on a larger scale,” she concludes.
By: Urban Nilmander