The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ‘lady dandies’ – life, style and subculture – are documented through textile accessories and the reportage photography of Kinshasa-based photographer Junior D. Kannah, in an exhibition at SOAS Brunei Gallery. Catch the exhibition in its last week (until Saturday 16 December)!
The sapeuses are a recent offshoot of the sapeurs, a male sartorial resistance movement that blossomed in Brazzaville, Kinshasa’s neighbouring city (now capital of the Republic of Congo) in the 1920s, when the former city was part of the colonial bloc of French Equatorial Africa. The sapeurs – or Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People) – sought to resist French and Belgian colonial rule by adopting and imitating the ‘master’s clothes’, with prominent sapeurs also being key players in influential Parisian anti-colonial pressure group L’Amicale.
The sapeur style and gentlemanly code of honour was formalised in the mid-20th century under the leadership of ‘dapper’ Papa Wemba, a rumba artist who was known for his taste in dazzling white suits and monochrome spats.
Bemba influenced a later generation of sapeurs who rose to political power through the turbulent years of the Congo and continental wars and whose subculture has now entered the mainstream (controversial President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, is a self-confessed sapeur).
The sapeuses have emerged in the past decade as young female Kinshasans view the inherited traditions of la sape as method of escape from rigid gendered roles and expectations. For some sapeuses, who traditionally dress in masculine suits and accessories imported via the Congolese diaspora in Belgium and France, la sape is a return to pre-colonial modes of strong African femininity; for others the movement, with its sapeuse solidarity clubs and rich socio-historical heritage, is a means of operating as a queer woman in a nation and era in which homophobia is a rife.