From January 25-March 2, 2013 M.I.A. Gallery in Seattle will be exhibiting works by Baudouin Mouanda, a photographer from the Republic of the Congo famous for documenting the sapeur lifestyle of the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or “Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People”. Mouanda started out as a photojournalist, quickly rising to international fame for his reknowned photographs of youth culture in the Congo.
In addition to photographing the sapeurs for La Sapologie (2008), Mouanda also documented the Libreville and Brazzaville hip-hop scenes in the series Hip Hop et société (2009). He has a keen eye towards the self-expression of young people, which I believe will ultimately change the way we think about Africa in the west. Mouanda’s photographs present an overwhelmingly positive view of contemporary life; one that depicts a vibrant home-grown culture in the lives of the young.
A quick word about the Sapeurs
The sapeurs are the ideal photographic subject; a subculture of spirited young men who dress up in the very best of get-ups. Gasworks, the London-based contemporary art organization that hosted Mouanda’s first UK exhibition describes the sapeur lifestyle as a kind of dandyism for the new age:
Sapeurs have emerged in African and diasporic communities over the past 25 years and are often read as a post-colonial, ‘globalised’ take on the Parisian dandies of the late 18th and early 19th Century. Mostly young men, they parade about in extravagant designer clothes, carving out ostentatious identities through style, gestures and slang.
For Mouanda, the sapeurs represent much more than nice threads and swagger. They symbolize a return to normalcy during a time of post-war reconstruction, after the Congolese civil war of 1997-1999. Their public displays are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and the desire to live and love life. In an interview with Marian Nur Goni, Mouanda describes the message of hope that the sapeurs try to impart in their communities:
Their message was, ‘We didn’t get dressed up to stay at home! We have been spared by the hostilities and we are lucky to be alive. There’s no point in fighting; we can talk and take each other by the hand’. The sapeurs often advocate this peaceful message. That’s why I, as a photographer, wanted to follow them. Images travel and spread messages. I want to show that a joyful Africa exists. That’s the perspective I adopt in my work.
Through his remarkable photographs, Mouanda shows us that there is a lot of hope and joy to look forward to in Africa’s future. We just have to know where to look.
Boudouin Mouanda is a member of Generation Elili, a Congolese photography collective based in Brazzaville. They work to promote Congolese photography all over the world (please note the Generation Elili blog is in French). For more information about Boudouin Mouanda’s work in English, please visit the African Digital Art Network.