Three unconventional designers in Senegal are giving new life to discarded items.
For 15 years Ousmane M’Baye repaired fridges in Soumbedioune, a part of central Dakar, Senegal. One day he made a chair out of recycled steel. Today he conquers the world with his furniture made of steel and recycled oil drums.
Some like to call what I am doing African art. I call it design; providing a casual, functional object with a soul, a direction.
On the street outside his old refrigerator workshop he makes cabinets, chairs, armchairs, lamps and shelves, which are then shipped to Paris, Barcelona, Belgium, Italy, the US and Japan. He has 10 people working for him, with two of them exploring Dakar’s junkyards to find good steel parts and oil barrels that can be used for his designs.
‘It’s been an amazing journey,’ he says. ‘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!’
Ousmane left school as a 15-year-old dyslexic and started working in his father’s small workshop to repair refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioners – but it was when a friend saw a chair he had made from steel and an old oil-drum cap that things starting taking off. His friend ordered several chairs, tables and cabinets for her house on the former slave island Isle de Gorée, a Unesco World Heritage site, and encouraged Ousmane to make more pieces of furniture to sell to tourists visiting the island. His first batch sold out on the first day, and he ‘began to understand he was on the right track’.
Ousmane has taken part in trade fairs and exhibitions worldwide, and has also been approached by design firms in Hong Kong.
Just down the road from Ousmane, in Grand Yoff, there’s a workshop where a dozen carpenters are upcycling colourful Senegalese pirogues into furniture. The group, under the guiding eye of Fara Mendy, breathes new life into these old fishing boats by turning them into chairs, tables and football tables – and they’ve even partnered with Spanish textile designer Ramon Llonch on their designs, which are exported throughout Europe and the US.
Senegal’s strong tradition of craftsmanship and creativity is also evident in the designs of Gaelle K Ciss, a member of the Senegalese artist group Tangalmenthe. She makes furniture pieces from discarded washing machines and refrigerators. ‘I did this mostly as an experiment,’ she says. ‘But it is not impossible that I will continue on a larger scale, now that I know it is possible.’
Text Urban Nilmander Photographs Carin Tegner