Louis Vuitton, Kenzo, Versace and a belt by Vera Pelle: more shell is not possible. If you know, colloquially that means something like “dress up”. Accordingly, “Le Sapeurs” would be those who make themselves particularly chic. But they explain their name a little differently, namely as a name for the members of the “Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes”, the society of mood makers and elegant people. The sapeurs would not only have the phenomenon in view, but also its effect on his environment. You can find them especially in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the metropolises of the Congo, one of the world’s richest natural resources and where there is more poverty than anywhere else.
“Ambiance” means the environment, but also the social climate, the mood. What does an ambianceur do in Kinshasa? He does something for the climate, lifts the mood and beautifies his environment by dressing up and walking around in the most sensational way possible. “La Sape”, as the movement is called, and it is actually more of a movement than a “Société”, aims first of all for visibility, maximum visibility. Every jacket, every shoe, every ring, every tie and every cufflink says me, you can’t overlook me!
Producers of beautiful appearances
The sapeur is not wealthy. He is a porter, taxi driver, salesman. As a rule, he has to save several years before he can put together an ensemble that meets his requirements. In a country whose inhabitants only earn an average of a few hundred euros a year, the Sapeur wears crocodile leather shoes for $ 1,300 and a cashmere jacket that hardly cost less. Is that why the sapeur is a fashion junkie, a brand fetishist and a would-be millionaire who is slavishly devoted to the glittering world of luxury consumption? You could think so.
But with so much surface, some things remain in the dark. The phenomenon of the sapeur is complex and contradictory, its history seems largely unexplored. The sapeur is an illusionist who has both feet firmly on the ground of what is usually a poor reality. The sapeur does not deny reality, but emphasizes the extreme opposites that reign in it. At the same time, he keeps them for the duration of his appearance. He is the producer of a beautiful glow that dazzles and opens your eyes. This appearance is deceptive – and it is not deceptive. The sapeur slips into the clothes of the rich white man like under a cloak of invisibility. It makes it visible, but nobody will believe that the person wearing it is a white, rich man. You’d think the sapeur wanted to be someone he wasn’t at any cost. But the logic of the society of elegant people is different. According to her, the sapeur crosses one line and at the same time shows another line to those who have drawn it. In the words of a sapeur: “White people invented these clothes, but we made it an art to wear them.”
For some, “La Sape” experienced the decisive shaping in Brazzaville in the 1960s, when the Sapeurs joined the protest movements against President Mobutu and received increasing attention outside of the Congo through prominent representatives such as the successful musician Papa Wemba. Others refer to the twenties, when “La Sape” became visible as a subversive form of protest against the French colonial rulers. The term sapeur can be found in the writings of Alexander von Humboldt as early as 1850.
Sapeurs – and for a number of years increasingly also sapeuses – are often photographed. But do you also talk to them? The photographer Tariq Zaidi, who lives in England, has regularly visited the Sapeur scene in the Congo for three years for his fascinating illustrated book. Sapeurs can often be seen at festivals, fashion events and in commercials, but never before, as the foreword of the volume says, have they been photographed in their poor homeland. This is not entirely true, because Francesco Giusti photographed Sapeurs in their neighborhoods in Pointe-Noire in 2009. Zaidi now mentions the name, age and mostly also the occupation of his models and lists meticulously which fashion brands they wear, including headgear, sunglasses and umbrellas. But he doesn’t let her have a say. It might not be a photographer’s business to conduct interviews, but it’s a shame to miss the opportunity. A foreword of almost two pages is no consolation.
All that remains is the interpretation of the photographic interpretation of a phenomenon in which colonialism, attraction and repulsion, protest and appropriation, consumption and aesthetics mix in a captivating way. The sapeur is a trickster: he turns the relationship between the self and the stranger on its head. He is a shapeshifter: a black man in the subtly alienated splendor of the white garb. He is an ironic: he presents his expensive equipment in a poor environment. He is a member of a society of sociable singularities. He is unique in the cultural history of the fool. Because this fool is not only smarter than his audience, he’s also better dressed.
Tariq Zaidi: „Sapeurs“. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo. Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2020. 176 pp., Ill., Hardcover, € 35.