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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

ArtSpeaks: Africa #6 – Saint-Louis, Senegal: "Life's Divine Alchemy”

Updated: Jun 9

Today I came across the wisdom of a contemporary sage, Maria Popova, the founder of The Marginalian: "Everything is eventually recompensed, every effort of the heart requited, though not always in the form you imagined or hoped for. What redeems all of life’s disappointments, what makes all of its heartbreaks bearable, is the ability to see how the dissolution of a dream becomes the fertile compost of possibility." Can there be any words more poignantly beautiful?

Running through all of life is an undercurrent of what could be described as a “divine alchemy,” referring to that ancient practice of transmuting base metals into a more valuable substance. I love the words given to us by that ancient sage who in essence saw God as a Divine Alchemist, who “…comforts all who mourn, and provides for those who grieve. . .and bestows on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” This Divine Alchemist is all about transforming the worst of life’s situations for the better, because as my Senegalese friends say so beautifully, “God is closer to us than our jugular vein.”

I was profoundly reminded of life’s sacred alchemy in Saint-Louis, in northern Senegal, when visiting the studio of someone I would consider an artistic alchemist. Meïssa Fall, most often known by his nickname "FM,” takes used bikes and their parts and turns them into absolutely remarkable sculptures.

In this way, Meïssa gives bikes a second life. One could call him a bike alchemist. "On the surface, when people look at a bicycle, they see nothing more than a bicycle,” he says. “And yet beyond appearances, this machine has several lives and can represent various objects. For me it is the most beautiful invention in the world and should not be wasted.”

Contemplating his art, Meïssa reflects, "Nobody could imagine that we can make art with parts of bicycles.” As a child, Meïssa apprenticed in bicycle repairs with his father, who had done the same with his grandfather. At the age of eight, his father, who wanted him to stay occupied, would give him a cloth to clean the bikes or mopeds he had repaired. As Meïssa would touch them, he began to imagine sculptures made out of bicycle parts. Slowly, he began to fall in love with what became his art of recycling the parts, by sculpting them into furniture, animals, people, musical instruments, and pretty much anything one’s imagination can conjure up. As Meïssa says affectionately, “I spent hours cleaning those bikes. After spending hours caressing them, I ended up loving them. Each bike tells me their story. Over time, I began to transform them in my head into human and animal forms.”

He eventually had his own bicycle repair shop. However, over the years, there was less and less demand for traditional bike repairs. So, while in his fifties, he started giving used bike parts a second life, recycling them into unconventional imaginary sculptures. Allowing his dreams to come to life, he fully embraced his imagination, and his unique form of art.

Reflecting on his art, Meïssa says, “The bicycle is my everyday companion, my best friend. I grew up with it, and now earn my living through it. My calling is to recycle and transform bike parts into art. In this way my soul will rest in peace.” These unique sculptures are both new creations as well as souvenirs of specific bicycles. Using a well-known phrase attributed to the revolutionary 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, Meïssa says, "Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” Meïssa has now taught his sons to sculpt from used bikes as well, making it a full family affair.

The artist, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard is serene, jovial and clearly has a free spirit. “I need to get out what’s in my head. It relieves me,” shares Meïssa. “I don’t travel, I don’t watch television, there are already too many things on my mind.” He shares how he first envisions an object or character in his mind. Then he assembles all the needed parts (each bike has 1500 parts!). He then visits an ironworker to cut and weld the parts as he needs them, in order to create the sculpture of his imagination.

The four walls of his small 5 x 5-meter studio in Saint-Louis are more than 3 meters high covered with mountains of old bicycles, or at least what remains of them. And on the studio’s sandy floor, there are dozens of works of art made from bicycle parts. As modern bicycles are no longer made with metal, he collects as many used bikes as he can find in order to have the materials he needs for his sculptures in the future.

"He is the surgeon of bikes," says fellow artist and friend Madieye Sall. Meïssa has exhibited throughout Senegal, and even as far as Paris, France. In 2017, he won the award for “best artist designer in Saint-Louis, Senegal.”

I found Meïssa Fall a modern parable about the alchemy of life, as he breathes new life into items considered as good as dead. As he sculpts and forges these figures, he whispering into the ears of the discarded parts, this former bicycle repairman-turned-artist shares his simple yet wonderfully profound motto; “Everything has a second life.” With creative vision, he breathes a new trajectory into them.

I am reminded of the altogether unorthodox vision of another imaginative creative, an ancient sage named Ezekiel. He had a vision of a valley of dry bones, graphically conveying the utter despair felt by his people. Yet, in his vision, the dry bones are mysteriously given flesh again, and life is breathed into them anew. Like Meïssa does with used bicycle parts, Ezekiel draws our attention to the character of the one who might be understood and experienced as the Divine Alchemist, who not only gives life in the first place, but is all about giving new life again, and again, and again…even when all seems completely dead.

Knowing this about the Divine Alchemist is the basis of the most profound hope imaginable. Hence, the Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo was able to write in his best-selling book The Alchemist: “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

Take hope!

By Paul G. Chandler


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