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A sapeur from Democratic Republic of Congo
A sapeur from Democratic Republic of Congo
Françoise Alexander

PARIS — Donning a ribbon-trimmed red bowler hat and a white tunic embroidered with black in what turned out to be his last concert, Papa Wemba stayed true to personal code of conduct: Always look sharp.

The tenor of Congolese rumba, who collapsed and died on stage while performing at a music festival in Abidjan in Ivory Coast on the morning of April 24, will be remembered as one of the greatest singers of his generation. He'll also go down in history as one of the most high-profile promoters of the sape movement — from the French acronym for the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People — a social phenomenon that glorifies elegance and style.

The movement gained steam in the 1960s in both parts of Congo, Brazzaville and Kinshasa. It was allegedly a blend of the country's appearance-centric traditional culture and a social protest against colonialism. Recently, the movement has gained so much support that the word "sape" made it into the 2016 edition of the French Larousse dictionary. Many authors and fashion designers have also praise the sape trend.

But success always comes at a price: Can such mainstream attention threaten the sape movement's substance? What's the best way to protect it without promoting exoticism?

"A revolutionary reaction"

La Sape originally emerged in the mid 1920s, when André Matsoua, a soldier from Pool, in southern Congo, came home after the Rif War, armed with stylish clothes and a fierce desire to fight for his country's freedom. In a protest against the fate of demobilized infantrymen, Matsoua refused to take off his uniform.

At the same time, some of his countrymen were trying to imitate the colonists by wearing outfits similar to theirs.

"There were people in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1930s and 1940s — dubbed "évolués"meaning well-rounded individuals according to the terminology of the period — who would imitate Europeans. They would put on airs and copy the colonists' behaviors. This was a way for them to highlight their social superiority and assert their identities. This kind of dandy is a well-known stock-character in African literature," says Romuald Fonkua, director of the International Centre for French Studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

By the 1960s, the issue had evolved. "The years following a country's independence often lead to the crumbling of society and the establishment of dictatorships. In Congo, those years led people to resort to clothing as a way to express their discontent," says Fonkua, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Présence Africaine journal.

In the 1970s, La Sape became a protest against the "abacost" policy — from the French "à bas le costume," or "down with the suit" — that was implemented in Congo. In accordance with Zairianization, the official state ideology of the Joseph-Désiré Mobutu regime, wearing a European-style suit and tie was officially forbidden. President Mobutu wore a hat made of leopard fur, a symbol of power in the Bantu population.

"In this sense, La Sape was truly a revolutionary behavior," notes Fonkoua. "It expressed both resistance and the assertion of an African identity with a global outlook, as opposed to Mobutu's limited, obtuse vision."

The sape movement also expresses a desire to trade guns for flamboyant clothing (with never more than three colors in the same outfit) and loud fashion accessories. Sape supporters engage in symbolic battles that replace those led by the Ninja and the Cobra militias during the civil war at the end of the 1990s, when Denis Sassou Nguessa came to power in Brazzaville.

The Ten Commandments of Sapology" stipulate open-mindedness and irreproachable behavior. As a sapeur, "you will favor neither tribalism, nationalism nor racism," it is widely understood.

"La Sape is art, it's joy. It's like music: It is a well-controlled form of exhibitionism that makes life more beautiful," says Kinshasa Deb'Bukaka, a musician from the Coup Fatal show.

This performance, which was just on tour in France, mind-blowingly combines European Baroque and traditional Congolese music. Coup Fatal, originally put on by countertenor Serge Kakudji, also makes use of La Sape, in a mixture of humor and self-deprecation that earns hearty laughter from the audience.

But this can lead to a sense of uneasiness: When the exuberance of the outfits goes beyond excess and the burlesque verges on the grotesque, laughter may turn to mockery. It might also reinforce some stereotypes and call to mind the way travelogue-penning colonists would sarcastically mock the "indigenous people" for copying western dress.

A political stance

"I'm not afraid of burlesque, as long as there is a balance," says Coup Fatal's Belgian choreographer Alain Platel. "More than anything, I wanted to convey this positive energy that exists in the DRC Democratic Republic of Congo and that could also help Europeans."

This is the same energy that drew over 120,000 visitors to the "Beauté Congo" ("Congolese Beauty") exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris between July 2015 and January 2016. A promising young artist named JP Mika drew the poster for the exhibition, which showed a couple in colorful clothing. Himself a sapeur, this former student of Chéri Chérin — one of the pioneers of the Congolese "Popular Painting" movement that emerged at the end of the "70s — likes to play with La Sape traditions in his work, sometimes mixing the paint he uses with glitter dust.

"In Congolese culture, there is a fondness for beauty that percolates into the way people dress and into these works of art that do not take themselves seriously," says Leanne Sacramone, the exhibition's co-curator. "Self-deprecation is a major characteristic of these pieces, which may be why we appreciate them so much."

Much as the colonized asserted their desire to reverse the established social and political order by dressing like the colonists, the sapeurs of today are expressing their right to be individual thinkers, and to be free. At least until this socio-political stance morphs into a juicy business opportunity or fashion trend — because these days, La Sape is trendy.

"An absurd display"

In 2010, designer Paul Smith unveiled a collection of clothes inspired by photographer Daniele Tamagni's book Gentlemen of Bacongo (Trolley Books, 2009). Various big names in luxury and alcohol — such as Louis Vuitton, or Christian Louboutin, in his spring-summer 2016 men's collection, and even Guinness and Vitamalt — have used La Sape to sell their products.

Fashionista and singer Solange Knowles made a clip for her "Calling You" track using elements borrowed from La Sape. In 2015, Belgium singer Stromae visited the sapeurs during his trip to Brazzaville. French Singer Maître Gims won a Victoire de la Musique accolade this year for his song "Sapé comme jamais," which was viewed more than 145 million times on YouTube.

Still, this enthusiasm for sape has some people puzzled.

"Any outside observer, no matter how honest, must view the sape movement with a degree of irony," says Simon Njami, co-founder of the Revue Noire journal. To him, La Sape is nothing but an "absurd display"" whose meaning was construed by westerners. "If La Sape has become so popular in France, it is because it consolidates the myth of the Noble Savage," he says.

Can fashion designers escape this predicament, as they rely on photographers such as the French Pascal Maître, the Italian Daniele Tamagni or the Spanish Hector Mediavilla to snap pictures of their sape fashion shows against miserably poor landscapes?

"My goal was to create a reportage on everyday African life, far removed from western clichés," writes Mediavilla in his work S.A.P.E. ­(Intervalles, 2013). "I didn't want to lapse into a reflection on war, famine, cardboard tribalism or the inherent beauty of the African continent, aiming to make a deep impression at all costs. I wanted to photograph other aspects that would allow viewers to grasp the complexity of Africa's socio-economic reality."

His images, which play with a kind of cognitive dissonance, show bright clothing against faded cement buildings. It is jarring to think that they could feed hackneyed clichés of Africa as a place both miserable and colorful, with strange traditions, where the superficial — having — wins over what's more important: being.

Frustrated individuality

How can we articulate what sape is really about without altering it?

"I did not ask the sapeurs to pose for pictures," says Congolese photographer Baudouin Mouanda. "The difference between my work and that of Hector Mediavilla, who hosted a photography workshop in Brazzaville in 2003 that I participated in, is that I live with these people. Hector's work is some sort of a documentary. Not mine." That's why in Mouanda's pictures, there is no endemic misery to be seen. Instead, the focus is on movement and details.

"What matters is to give these men, who are not welcome around here, the chance to express themselves," says David Bobée, the director of the National Drama Centre in the French Haute-Normandie region. "If you want to avoid falling into the trap of exoticism, your work must be neither a documentary nor a kind of exhibitionism."

Recently Bobée and his colleagues staged Paris, a play that narrates the everyday life of a Sub-Saharan migrant in France: a garbage director by day, he becomes a sapeur at night. Bobée says he is interested in "the resilience at the heart of the sape movement. The immigrant sapeur is fleeing from the subhuman role his host society imposes on them, by imaging he is superhuman."

This resilience is also what Kulien Mabialia Bissila shows in his play Au nom du père et du fils et de J.M. Westin ("In the name of the Father, the son, and J.M. Westin"), in which two brothers walk through a capital devastated by war, searching for the spot where they buried a pair of Weston loafers — the very best type of shoes for any sapeur.

For Bissila, a playwright from Brazzaville, "dandyism is a way of understanding frustrated individuality in a mass society." It is a way of saying "I" in a totalitarian system.

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