What is a creative culture? You’re looking at men who call themselves Sapeurs.
The group’s persona comes together at the intersection of personal style, body adornment, manner of dress and social touchstones – they all embrace the same values, stylized behavior and sartorial splendor to form their own creative culture.
Africa gave birth to this society of well-dressed men who show off their version of street style. But living in poverty, where a year’s salary could go to pay for one pair of alligator shoes, many work for years to afford their elegant outfits.
My previous post explored Scott Schuman, a cool hunter searching for people displaying that sophisticated form of self-expression known as street style. For the most part, the people captured in his lens created their own sense of fashion. The Sapeurs take it to the next level, beyond fashion, to create their own atmosphere of elegance. Sapeurs are part of a creative culture called SAPE – Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People).
At first glance, they remind me of the stylish dancers in Madonna’s video Vogue. Voguing came from dance clubs in Harlem and Madonna’s music video captures the transformative quality that clothes can provide and then celebrates it. It’s all about looking fabulous, knowing you look fabulous, putting that grand feeling out there as you strike a pose and thrust yourself into an elegant ambiance. If you don’t remember Vogue, here it is
When we look at something that seems familiar we “see” it through our own experience, that’s how we make sense of the world. But to do so often means embracing assumptions that are culture-bound. We’re certainly guilty of that in the West when we look eastward – although thinking further – it’s probably a common human trait, to seek understanding by defining and placing what you observe into familiar slots.
So when you look at the Sapeurs, are they voguing or is it something else?
Everyone of them has their own personal style and also a close identification with their fellow Sapeurs. That’s a hallmark of a creative culture. It embraces personal expression and engages you to put it out there, to share it and in doing so, to reaffirm your place in the world and your connection with your creative community.
Two photographers have spent considerable time photographing Africa’s Sapeurs. Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni won a number of prizes for his work Gentlemen of Bacongo.
As he found, being a Sapeur is much more than dressing with style.
For what does elegance mean in a land where having a refrigerator is a sign of status?
The contrast of Sapeurs living in shacks wearing elegant clothes is so striking – you can see their desire to move beyond poverty and the deadening struggles of daily life. The impetus for SAPE and the Sapeurs came from modeling French society, or their version of an imagined and idealized French society. With SAPE comes rules about manners, personal behavior, how to dress and carry yourself in public, politics – they’re pacifists – and an effort to create a stylized and idealized ambiance. Sapeurs are also admired by their neighbors and are often invited to weddings and funerals to add a touch of class.
Spanish photographer Hector Mediavilla has also been documenting Sapeurs and offers a detailed history/critique of the group here.
Hector Mediavilla: “Creativity is very important. It’s not only about spending a lot of money on the clothes, but also the way they speak, the way they move. … It’s a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give you many opportunities… It’s about [being] confident in oneself despite the circumstances… Having the respect and admiration of their community, today’s Sapeurs consider themselves artists.”
Danielle Tamagni continues the conversation:
In a world where everything is connected, a Spanish photographer’s take on an African creative culture inspired by French elegance was recently featured on America’s NPR and is currently on exhibit in Portland, Oregon. Last year Daniele Tamagni’s photographs inspired recording artist Solange to feature Sapeurs in her music video Loosing You – and she invited him to her video shoot.
The video Solange made with Sapeurs who live in South Africa is just below. It’s joyful and strange at the same time and seeing the Sapeurs in action gives you a totally different view of their sartorial style. My first viewing left me aswirl in the exotica of it all. But when I watched it a second time, I could find some sweet, unguarded moments that made it feel much more lively and fun. Check it out and let me know what think.