This photographer captures the femininity of the La Sape movement in Congo

Even though the African fashion industry is finally getting the recognition it deserves, many underground subcultures that foster the expression of community and creativity still exist. One such subculture thrives in the Republic of Congo, where the Congolese dandy culture, called La Sape (The Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People), finds its source.

Its history dates back to the early 1920s and 1930s during the period of the French colonial era. This was notably a form of protest against French colonialism. La Sape or Sapologie is a movement of unique complexity. It’s more than just a parade of sappers who dress ostentatiously in colorful costumes but represent the socio-economic and political knot that binds the population.

Messani Grace, in a tuxedo. She says, “My husband is also a sapper and he’s part of the main reason I feel confident doing this because he’s been so supportive and taught me everything I need to know about fashion.”

Photo credit: Victoire Douniama

Since its creation, La Sape has had a masculine presence. Although women are interested in La Sape, it is strictly for men. Congolese women had to wear African print dresses and be housekeepers. Despite challenges and backlash, a group of Congolese women continued to challenge the status quo, fighting for their style of expression. Today, hundreds of women have joined the movement, dressed in suits, tuxedos and bow ties.

Victoire Douniama dressed in white

As a photojournalist, Victoire Douniama focuses her project on women sappers because there was a lack of representation by other photographers.

Photo credit: Victoire Douniama

Documenting these women is a Congolese photojournalist Victory Douniama. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Douniama was always inclined towards art from an early age. She was inspired by her older sister’s sketchbook. “I was so fascinated by his art and his drawing talent,” Douniama told OkayAfrica. “The visual arts have therefore always been one of my passions.” Douniama’s gift for drawing was evident by fifth grade, and during her teenage years she developed a passion for photography.

As she resettled in the Republic of the Congo, she was struck by the lack of representation of the nation in the media which mainly depicted the negative aspects of the country. For Douniama, it is important to center his profession in his native country, as this not only represents his roots, but it is also an opportunity to use his passion to showcase the rich natural resources and cultures of Congo. The neighboring country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has also been a step for Douniama to carry out its work alongside various NGOs.

u200bTsiba Mary Jane wears a blue suit

Tsiba Mary Jane works as a thrift store at the Mikalou market in Brazzaville. He says, “I use my hair as a form of identity, as you can see my hair is green, yellow and red in color. Which represents the Congolese flag.”

Photo credit: Victoire Douniama

Her tenacity is certainly unmatched as she navigates her craft in a country facing various economic challenges, especially since the pandemic. Being a freelance photographer in the face of such obstacles can be daunting for some, but her portfolio speaks for itself. Asked about her secret to success, she replied, “You have to develop your own style and clients will hire if it matches their brand.”

Among the various projects under Douniama’s belt is his photo diary, The Saupeuses of the Congo. For Douniama, La Sape is more than just a fashion statement. She recognizes the political elements of the visuals. The emergence of women sapeurs is revolutionary and, without a doubt, impressive.

“It was born out of a political protest during the colonial era and a movement that called for change in Congo Brazzaville and the DRC,” Douniama said. “It challenges the conservative role of women in Congo and it normalizes freedom of expression, which is vital for Congolese people to become more open-minded.”

Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido

A portrait of Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido during a funeral in front of a house in “La tchiemé”.

Photo credit: Victoire Douniama

As a photojournalist, Douniama focused her project on female sappers because there was a lack of representation by other photographers. “I wanted to give the ladies a space to share their experiences and what exactly inspired them to join this movement, and how people within their social circle reacted to it,” she said. “Because at one time, this conservative movement was only for men.”

This photo project gave him insight into the dynamics of La Saupeuse and their self-making practices. The exuberant sapper is in her mid-30s to early 50s. She is a wife, mother, and can be found in a variety of walks of life as a market vendor, police officer, second-hand clothes vendor, or government official. . She sculpts her hair into a cut or taper fade, with touches of different dye, borrowing accessories and accessories considered masculine like smoking pipes, hats and umbrellas.

In colorful suave costumes, these women subvert gender norms, which require them to dress in traditional “feminine” attire known as Liputta — a bold move for a conservative country like the Congo. For this reason, no matter how liberal society has become, some women are looked down upon, discriminated against or even receive negative reactions.

So, can Les Saupeuse translate into a social revaluation of the lives of Congolese women? As the world continues to question patriarchal norms, it is a movement that is still forging its identity within the culture. “A lot of people didn’t think women could do all this,” Douniama said. “That’s why they mostly wanted women to be reserved and submissive.”

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