Personal Realities Influencing Social Commentary
The phenomenon of Africans capturing the culture of their imperialist master and tweaking it to their own fancy is not new. Rigid social classes along racial and economic lines have helped to shape Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe into the societies we see today. Some styles resulting from this dichotomy are more stringent than others, but globally we can take heart in the more positive trends of today, where there is a blurring of representations, and a backlash of direct social commentary garnering international attention.
Take for instance, the 1990s work of legendary photographer Seydou Keita. This Malian artist started out in the city of Bamako merely selling his ability to create portraits of Africans that appeased their visions of themselves, whether wealthy or not. He did not see himself as an artist, although his range grew to incorporate vast tapestries of fabric, texture and design in addition to props and symbols from not just Western but also Eastern and African societies. Keita started in the 1940s, a transitional period for much of Africa, yet still heavily influenced by American and European style and interests. One could say that his photos, capturing a not-often seen perspective of African life, are a kind of predecessor to today’s rendition of Dapper Dudes (sapeurs as they are known, disciples of La Sape).
La Sape encompasses not just wearing stylish clothes but also social behavior and decorum, walking and talking the talk. Indeed, La Sape began while Congo was still a French colony, to imitate the grandeur of those in power, but it also took off in the 1970s and 1980s with the transnational developments after Congo gained independence. Immigrants would go to France and head back with a heightened sense of the “cult of elegance” The communities where sapeurs live are proud of their contributions, and often hire the men to add a bit of flare to their weddings, funerals and other events where photos are known to be taken. The interesting juxtaposition of the snappily dressed dark man in bright outlandish colors yet as at home walking the humble streets of Brazzaville Congo as if he were in Paris highlights the value and strength of this fashion/social phenomenon.
The sapeurs of Brazzaville hold a high moral standard as well, many of them being devout Catholics and maintain a French philosophy of independence from government politics and simultaneously a revolutionary nature that transcends their humble beginnings and allows them to hold captive international regard. It is not just looking one’s best, but it is also the valuation of a certain set of principles, form gait and composure that shows the dignity of these African men and their surroundings in spite of what everything else may look like. It is a statement that there is pride and sensibility within that should not be overlooked; in fact here it is brightly in your face should you doubt it. It may be Western, but it is also African, their personal stamp on the style of the yesteryear.
Keita, the sapeurs and many other individuals from Africa also help us to address our own fashion and cultural phenomenon in the US. We can check out people like Farnsworth Bentley, Maxwell (seen his latest album cover?), even the ghastly legacy of Uganda’s former president Idi Amin and understand a bit more about what the representation meant for each of them. Dressing well means for some to hide a deep hurt of alienation from one’s origins, but it also was a way to transcend an outsider’s perception of what you our your kind was supposed to look and act like. By imitation and transformation, even these seemingly odd and out-of-place forms of dress and mannerisms took on the personality of their subjects, and became a reality all their own.
Arise Magazine, June 2009 “Dandy Lions”, pp.82-89
http://www.jackshainman.com/dynamic/exhibit_artist.asp?ExhibitID=29 Fall 2003 season Exhibit on Samuel Fosso
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Tags: His Style