Extravagant and expensive: photo book about Congolese sapeurs

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.

Tariq Zaidi: „Sapeurs“. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo.


Tariq Zaidi: „Sapeurs“. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo.
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Image: Kehrer Verlag

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.”

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