Many people don’t know there’re two Congos, divided by a gigantic river of the same name: one the once private enterprise of the King of Belgium; the other a French colony. Others are still lost in the multiple name changes that Congo underwent in the last sixty years. Independently of any substantial knowledge on the Congos, which occupy an area larger than Western Europe and extremely rich in natural resources and cultural diversity, when Congo comes to mind, chances are that the images will pertain the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously known as Zaïre and Belgian Congo) and will fall under the trope sorrow, tears and blood. Indentured labor under the property of King Leopold and colonial exploitation, mainly of the mineral-rich Katanga and Kivu regions, led the way to fifty-two years of instability, most of which with internal armed conflicts in which rape, child soldiers, international mercenaries and dispossession of the nation’s main riches are indeed the rule. Everything in Congo, it’s said, has global proportions. Its wars have been fought, by proxy or directly, by multiple international and regional powers. Congo was a paradigmatic case that put to test the capacity of the UN to intervene in conflicts confined to national borders and use force beyond self-defense.
Congo-Brazzaville does not populate with the same intensity the international news and had a somehow quieter faith. After decades of a single party regime, the country faced a civil war in the late 1990s. With the intervention of Angola, a new regime was stated in 1999 and the country has remained peaceful since then.
(Courtesy: Google Earth)
Now, if I ask you to think about fashion or any other images of the Congos, chances are that you will think of Joseph-Desiré Mobutu (Sese Seko) and his leopard skin attires or, perhaps, the ubiquitous Dutch wax women dresses, a fabric so full of history and agency that would deserve a post on its right. Dutch wax is the hard, colored, patterned fabric that the Netherlands found in Java, industrialized and sold in Africa.
These images comprise the post-colonial gaze over these countries. Our representations on “the Black continent” have changed over time, but remain essential a gaze: an observation that creates a more or less homogeneous, rigid representation of a reality. The peril of the gaze is to reduce the observed object to the representation.
We tend to see Africa as the continent of wars, disease and destitution. We project expectations to append qualities like “failed states”. The Colonial gaze was a sophisticated representation that justified the European colonization to bring “civilization”. But critical thinking is central to the post-colonial gaze. Many recognize the foreign influence on these terrible events and developed a condescending view towards the continent. Congo is a special case, as the sadistic playground of Global powers over decades. The plays of this post-colonial gaze are, however, much more complex.
The art of being an elegant person: reinventing colonial attire
Now, watch this.
The first images abide completely to what you would expect from Congo. After informing the viewer that the scenes take place in Brazzaville it shows men putting fire on hay and collecting a crop (sugar cane?), a man carrying ice on messy streets with car parts and, a metal smith. These are the hard workers of Brazzaville. These men are then seen washing in improvised showers and tidying up. The narrator says
“You can’t always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you’re”
These men dress up with exquisite and extra-colored suits, tissues, pocket watches, sunglasses, bicolor shoes, hats and else. The narrator presents them as
“the sapeurs, the society of elegant persons of the Congo”
The rest, well, the rest is a legendary display of such elegance in their club, whilst drinking, of course, the advertised beer. The soundtrack is meaningful too. It’s The Heavy’s What makes a good man. Yes, this is a much-commented ad produced by a large Irish Brewery, together with a documentary.
Sapueurs are members of the SAPE – Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, which exists in both Congos and represents multiple (apparently unconnected) clubs of persons who creatively mimic the metropolitan styles to reassert their own elegance.
No, it’s not dutch wax, nor any form of fashion that could be considered or claimed to be African. In fact, it defies Mobutu’s Retour a la Autenticité policy of stripping the country of all-things European, including suits. They were replaced in the sixties in the then Zaïre by the Abacost, an Indian-spired jacket. Abacost is short for “a bas le costume”, or down with the jacket. Therefore, in the east side of the Congo River, but not only, it is a subversion of the post-colonial discourses and mentality imposed by new governments and regimes.
In fact, much beyond the self-pride displayed in the glossy ad, they have been the object of controversies. Particularly interesting in this regard is a piece the NYT wrote in 1988, discussing the phenomenon in Brazzaville and Paris, where the diaspora practice their sartorial elegance with even more luxury. The piece focus on how elegant Brazavillians rely on merchants to bring from Paris fashion designs in their attempt to emulate the elegance they see in French magazines and how this was contested on political and moral grounds. The Sapeurs, the writer says, were regarded a
cultural affront to people of the older generation, who speak of ”authenticity,” anti-colonialism and Marxism.
And the writer seems to justify this charge, stating that
For the sapeur, the only ”ism” to follow is narcissism. And his manifesto is the society pages of glossy French-language publications like Africa Elite and Jeune Afrique.
The practice was also associated with delinquency, the article asserts, but the sapeurs defied their detractors on both shores of the Congo river.
Is this hegemonic colonial cliché or a subversion with the discourses of post-colonial Africa?
Well, it’s always hard to tell. Hegemonic forms may give birth to new cultural practices with local accents or even turn into the weapons of counter-hegemonic defiance. “Cargo” Cults in Melanesia are often quoted examples of how the devotion to Western goods were subsumed into a belief system different than our “commodity fetishism” and put into the service of local power relations. In the case of the sapeurs, I also see an active and creative recreation. More, I see some subversion here: first, subversion of imposed post-colonial discourses, which are often hybrids, mixing African traditions, the will of self-determination and reconstruction of cultural “authenticity”, and European ideologies of emancipation. Second, subversion of more “traditional” masculinities, which think of vanity as an exclusive feminine domain. These men take pride not of their physical strength, of their laborious productive tasks, but of the finesse of their clothes, the brands, resembling European dandies. And in so doing, we return to the first subversion: they defy the revolutionary African bodies, the self-disciplined committed comrade with self-determination and progress of the African nations. Finally, by creatively reinventing European elements of elegance, they equally defy the post-colonial gaze and its mainly tristes tropes about sorrow, tears and blood, which albeit existent, do not encompass the entire reality of the continent and tend to mute local agency.
These men have created their very own version of sartorial elegance through the appropriation and recreation of European attire. The sapeurs themselves say that the Europeans might have invented the clothes and objects they wear, but it was up to them to transform them into real elegance. Humans are masters (and slaves) of their own symbols. Not accidentally, the ad ends with the narrator showing the sapeurs rejoicing with the saying
“I’m the master of my faith, I’m the captain of my soul”
Appropriating the appropriation
Then, you have Europeans appropriating the appropriation of European elegance in novel ways. There is actually a wealth of publications covering la Sape with exquisite pics. Highlights, in the opinion of this blogger are NPR’s picture show and the gorgeous book by Tamagni (with a preface by the British fashion designer Paul Smith). The Dapper Museum in Paris, held a special exhibit about la Sape with pictures in 2009/2010, in connection to its other exhibit, The Art of Being a Man.
And now, we have the ad. The ad clearly treats them cosmetically, adding some vibrant colours and outfits. The truth is that once the news on the sapeurs reached back Europe, new representations gained life on their own and the interest in these elegant Congolais bourgeoned. The ad was relatively influential, at least in the UK, where the BBC investigated how truthful the ad is to the real sapeurs. BBC shows that, in fact, the video for the ad was shot in South Africa. Elegance may exist and challenge our views on the Continent, but the countries of Central Africa seem too dangerous for the filming crew. The life of metropolitan representations is a different issue and the ways the ad was produced says little or nothing about the practices of Sapeurs or how they are actually interpreted by the Euro-American system. The ad creates a particular representation, which might differ from the ordinary practices, as a particular way of seeing them. The cosmetic treatment of the phenomenon only makes it more picturesque and strengthens the association between the sapeurs and European audiences. Perhaps ads like this are not sufficient to change the post-colonial gaze with which the Euro-American system construes their image of Africa, but as Europeans can see their own dandies, and can relate to what seems a tournament using known yet exaggerated forms of elegance, this phenomenon certainly attracted attention in the ways it was represented for contemporary audiences by the ad and other material. And thus, the collective bodily expression of this group represents a circuit which connects colonisers and colonised in creative ways and representations, starting and returning to Europe.