from roots to routes
La Sape: Cultural appropriation as identitarian emancipation
di Orsola Vannocci Bonsi

I would like to express my thankfulness to Daniele Tamagni (1975 – 2017), the first photographer who documented the sapeurs, who allowed me to interview him, even if he was fighting against a tremendous monster, which unfortunately won the battle.

Questions around examples of translating acts or modes of cultural appropriation have developed recently in the fashion industry –as the fashion brand Valentino in 2016[1] and have received widespread attention in different media issues and academic contexts against the background of a postcolonial rationality. In the early 20’s, during the colonial rule of the Congo, the movement called La Sape started to flourish as a social trend that seized the style and fashion elements connoted with the colonizer, thus re-signifying these and turning them into visual and social statements. The movement grew through the 1960 until today as it carried out its steadily adoption of European style and clothing, most of them with a vintage imprint, thus allowing for an alternative reading of the imperialistic legacy of fashion and to engage with it in an emancipatory way. My analysis on this case study departs from an interview conducted with Daniele Tamagni, author and photographer of “Gentlemen of Bacongo” – one of the first photo-books to document La Sape – continuing with a reflection on Bhabha’s arguments drawn in Of Mimicry and Men and Foucault’s theory about the existence of a creative matrix in power relations, as postulated in Discipline and Punishment. Acknowledging that the repetitive movement of displacement of symbols and practices are at the core of colonial discourses and power relations, I wish to posit that La Sape may have a dual translation as both an act of resistance and an identity producer.
La Sape (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes) is a movement of, mostly, males around 20/40 years old who wear luxury designer fashion imported from Europe which is mostly vintage but remodeled on site with a “local” touch and a Congolese sense of aesthetics. It is a peculiar fashion movement, due to its important historical background, and it is not circumscribed to its visual result considering that it moves further: being a sapeur means to have a precise behavior, a certain lifestyle and to practice the cult of elegance through which the human being becomes socially established and, according to them, dignified. To be a sapeur has always been a way to revolt, to establish oneself socially. Quoting Daniele Tamagni “a real sapeur has to be cultured and with a solid moral ethics, in order to achieve the individual’s moral nobility.”
La Sape has developed in the two Congos, namely the countries which now are identified as the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and, more precisely, in the two capitals: Brazzaville and Kinshasa, two cities divided by the Congo river, which not only names the two States, but it was also used as a demarcation line in the era of the colonial expansion. While researching on this topic, I noticed that the movement has some slight variations between the two states. Probably this is due to the fact that, as mentioned above, La Sape is intrinsically related to the sociopolitical context, and both Congos share a colonial past – which is where the deep roots of the movement are based – but then, over the years, their historical development differed.

©Daniele Tamagni, "Gentlemen of Bacongo", 2009
©Daniele Tamagni, "Gentlemen of Bacongo", 2009

Congo’s changing identity
The area of the two Congos had been contended between many powers and, following the Berlin Conference in 1885, the Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo) was assigned to Belgium, while on the other side of the river the territory became a French Protectorate. The Republic of Congo afterwards was converted in French Congo in 1910 and was included in the AEF (Afrique Équatoriale Française), which was divided in 1958. In 1960 the French Congo gained independence and became a Republic, but the democratic success was achieved through an extremely turbulent period, with political but mostly ethnic disorders. Eventually the country adopted a pro-soviet policy and in 1979 Denis Sassou Nguesso took the power and became the President of the country until today (except for a crisis in 1992). Denis Sassou Nguesso is governing the country since more than 30 years therefore a certain cult of his personality started to rise, also since, according to the Constitution drafted in 2002, the President of the Republic of Congo has practically unlimited powers.
On the other side of the river, as previously mentioned, the Free State of Congo was assigned to Leopold II, King of Belgium, who made the African state a personal property: the exploitation of the population for the cultivation of caoutchouc is considered one of the most ruthless of history. In the state, renamed Belgian Congo in 1908, the colonial rule was conducting a suppressive policy by committing an innumerable amount of human rights abuses. Finally, in 1960, the state declared its independence, and changed, again, its name in Congo. At the head of the government was placed Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the nationalist party, who was briefly deposed and executed one year later. After few dreadful years of crisis and massacres, in 1965 Mobutu Sese Seko became Prime Minister and he created his own unique party: the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution. Congo then evolved into a dictatorship and Mobutu’s frightening regime, supported by the CIA, lasted more than 30 years, standing on violence, bribery, crimes, and the use of government money for private purposes. Furthermore, in 1971, the dictator changed once more the name of the country in Zaire and started a rigorous campaign, named Authenticité (Authenticity) aiming to restore the African values and culture, that were lost during the colonialism, as an attempt to create a strong national identity. Authenticité was indeed a true cult of Mobutu’s personality, becoming eventually even a religious movement, “Mobutism”, which was taught in schools, replacing theology. Its objective was to build a new true and pure Congolese identity, expressed through language, symbols and a universal culture. The name of the cities, as the one of the country itself, had been renamed with African words, as well as the personal names of the Zairians, to whom it was prohibited to baptize the newborns with non-Africans names. It was even not allowed to wear European clothing, and the suits were banned.

©Daniele Tamagni, "Gentlemen of Bacongo", 2009

The evolution of La Sape
In both countries La Sape was initially born during the colonial rule of Congo, in the early 20s and became established around the 60s – 70s, continuing its evolution until today. Thus, the movement has the same matrix in both countries, and it consisted in a response to domination and colonization, which is the reason of its birth before the independence. But then, due to the different political development of the two Congos, La Sape evolved differently.
In the Republic of Congo, La Sape’s intent aims to maintain itself as an emancipatory tool from the colonial power, giving a certain new role to the “black man”, a new image of himself. The movement grew around the personality of André Matswa, considered the first real sapeur. Matswa was born in 1889, in French Congo. He studied with the intention of pursuing an ecclesiastical career but he eventually abandoned his studies and moved to France, where he arrived in 1923 and few years later, in 1925 he participated to the Rif War, fighting in the French Army. Thereupon, he moved back to Paris where he got in touch with other immigrants from the French colonies and with various leftist movements, awakening his willingness to change the colonial injustices. In 1926 he founded L’Amicale des Originaires de l’Afrique Équatoriale Française, a movement which had as its program the creation of an African elite, well- educated, benevolent and well dressed, which somehow could accelerate the evolution of Central Africa and thus gain independence from France with peaceful means, since he strongly believed that peacefully and intellectual methods were much more impactful and effective than the violent ones. Matswa eventually came back to French Congo, were he was arrested wearing “a three button blazer and white trousers” (Daniele Tamagni, 2017) and died in cell in 1942. The revolutionary legacy of André Matswa remained in the religious movement of Matsouanisme and in La Sape itself, in particular in the extremely democratic nature which lies in the ten commandments at the basis of the movement[2].
Matswa’s influence reached the sapeurs on the other side of the river, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but here La Sape became extremely popular later, in the 70s, during the dictatorial regime of Mobutu, as a reaction against the dictator himself and his nationalistic policy of repression. In particular, the movement evolved around the personality of Papa Wemba (1949-2016), one of the most influential Congolese rumba singer, who claimed to respond to the annihilating regime with shining colors and music.
Even if they eventually had a different evolution, in both cases the matrix of the movement appears to be the same:La Sape is a response to a domination, an authoritarian power, which in some way invalidates the identity of the controlled subject. It is thus a way to transform and reorganize an atrocious and totalizing power – totalizing because it annihilates the dominant subject – such as the colonial rule and engaging in discourse with it, re-evaluating it, adapting it through the re-articulation of its deeper meaning. Colonialism tended to undermine both the memory and the cultural pride of the colonized people, but paradoxically in this case there is a total overturn.
As Gisele Aris points out in the essay Power and Politics of Dress in Africa (2007), clothing was particularly important during the colonial domination as it was the visible and visual symbol of the relationship between colonizer and colonized. The Belgians and the French, giving European clothes to the Africans, were attempting to colonize them, domesticate them and civilize them through fashion. But the Congolese, instead of accepting passively European fashion, answered to this sort of clothing domination actively, reinterpreting it and translating subjection into emancipation. Therefore, in a regime of power, power has created a reaction consisted in another positive force, which erased the previous negative one. Finally, the colonial power, despite its first aim of domination and annihilation of the Other, had a creative function, completely opposite to its primary objective. Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975) sees a creative matrix in power: “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production” (Foucault 2014, p. 212 – my translation). A dominant power has then a certain creative matrix, because it forces the human – the one who is dominated – to react, in a creative manner. Power compels the subdued subject to go against it, to respond with a positive action. In the case of La Sape, a situation of power created the basis to produce a new phenomenon: a reality which uses the main elements that belonged to the previous – negative – one. Through reinterpretation and cultural appropriation, the new movement has maintained some characteristics of the replaced dominant power, but distorting its deeper meaning. What Foucault expanded on was the dichotomic force of an oppressive context of power, emphasizing on the dimensions of “truth” and “reality”, which is entirely reflected in the establishment of La Sape. In Congo this movement created a new reality, a new truth, or rather, a new post-colonial identity, thus what was before an annihilating power, became a creative trigger.

©Daniele Tamagni, "Gentlemen of Bacongo", 2009
©Daniele Tamagni, "Gentlemen of Bacongo", 2009

In the essay Of Mimicry and Men (1994), Bhabha claims that the colonial control aims to dominate and simultaneously improve the colonized subjects through the adoptions of imperialist customs.
The effective translation of this process is then mimicry, which is the way through which the dominant wants to somehow both recognize and reform the Other. The colonial rule wishes to subjugate and dominate the colonized, who cannot be exactly as the colonizer, he should be “the same but not too much”, not the perfect reflection of the higher power. A clear difference between the master and the native should always be visible so that the mimicry is effective, as Bhabha writes “almost the same but not white” (Bhabha 2010, pp. 128). What Bhabha defines as “colonial mimicry” – subjugates the other making him similar, but not too much – becomes in this case a sort of weapon of subversion in the hands of the colonized individual. The effectiveness of the colonial mimicry consists in having an excess, a difference with the original, and in the case of La Sape this difference became the pivot of a peculiar silent and subtle rebellion. As evidenced by Daniele Tamagni, being a sapeur means “to not suffer”, to rebel and to not undergo colonialism, but using it to affirm one’s own identity: “The white man might have invented clothes – but we have turned them into an art”[3].
In Of Mimicry and Men, Bhabha goes further, evidencing that the western objects in the colonies became “erratic, eccentric, accidental objets trouvés of the colonial discourse – the part-objects of presence” (Bhabha 2010, pp. 131). These objects, without the master defining them, lose their meaning as objects of domination, thus they could be translated and readapted with a new connotation, a new significance. The Congolese movement appropriates the European fashion and interprets, translates, adapts it to the local situation turning clothing into a vehicle and a tool of identity creation for those whom identity was obliterated.
It could be claimed that La Sape represents a particular Congolese adaptation of the colonial domination. Clothing – the tangible, the first thing to be noticed, used by the colonialist as a weapon of submission – in this case is taken to be used as a method to free oneself, to be emancipated from the same dominator. In Elegance and retrospective sartorialism among young African males (2015), Enrica Picarelli argues that on a visual perspective, the black color of the African skin, joint with the shimmering color of the clothes worn by the sapeurs, is an expedient to affirm oneself as black is the color normally compared with dirt, poverty and domination. In creating a visual contrast, the members attempt to model their own identity in order to come out of anonymity, ceasing to be “mere Africans” in the eyes of the Europeans and becoming sapeurs. The visual aspect of the sapeurs has a crucial importance in helping them to fight against their own perception, due to their colonialist past, of African man as worthless beings. They “make fashion memorable and keep memory fashionable” (Picarelli 2015, pp. 216) creating a pacific and democratic[4] collective memory which tries to erase the dreadful colonial past.
La Sape represents a particular Congolese translation of the colonial domination. Clothing, used before as a tool of submission, in this case is overturned and converted into a method to ennoble the native and more broadly, especially in a post-colonial context, to free the subject from any dominative and annihilating power. To conclude, despite having two different post-colonial backgrounds, in both Congos, La Sape, through mimicry and the resignification of the colonial objects as its pivot, was able to create a common language, which has the same dual purpose as an act of resistance and a cultural identity framer.

[1] In this regard please see: Markovinovic, Monika, 2016. Valentino’s African-Inspired Spring 2016 Campaign Accused Of Cultural Appropriation. The Huffington Post Canada. Available HERE.
[2] 1.Tu saperas sur terre avec les humains et au ciel avec ton Dieu créateur 2.Tu materas les ngayas (non connaisseurs), les nbéndés (ignorants), les tindongos (les parleurs sans but) sur terre, sous terre, en mer et dans les cieux  3.Tu honoreras la sapelogie en tout lieu 4.Les voies de la sapelogie sont impénétrables à tout sapelogue ne connaissant pas la règle de trois, la trilogie des couleurs achevées et inachevées 5.Tu ne cèderas pas 6.Tu adopteras une hygiène vestimentaire et corporelle très rigoureuse 7.Tu ne seras ni tribaliste, ni nationaliste, ni raciste, ni discriminatoire 8.Tu ne seras pas violent, ni insolent. 9.Tu obéiras aux préceptes de civilité des sapelogues et au respect des anciens. 10.De par ta prière et tes 10 commandements, toi sapelogue, tu coloniseras les peuples sapephobes. (From: Les 10 commandements de la Sapelogie. Available HERE)
[3] King Kester Emeneya in Secorun Palet, Laura, 2014. La Sape Knows Style. OZY, [Online]. Available HERE [Accessed 26 February 2019].
[4] Indeed, a fundamental aspect of La Sape is its extremely democratic nature, reflected in their commandments: “7. Tu ne seras ni tribaliste, ni nationaliste, ni raciste, ni discriminatoire 8.Tu ne seras pas violent, ni insolent 9.Tu obéiras aux préceptes de civilité des sapelogues et au respect des anciens.”

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Orsola Vannocci Bonsi (Florence, 1992) is a free-lance curator, working with the international curatorial collective based in Lisbon, Da Luz Collective, which aims to show, enhance and illustrate new artworks and emerging artists in a perspective of “vision” and “visual” criticism. She just finished her MA in Culture Studies at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Lisbon, with the thesis “Towards an Agonistic Ethics in Contemporary Art”. Her main area of interest is the relationship between cultural identity, conflict and politics and how it is translated into art. Alongside her studies and her curatorial activity, Vannocci Bonsi is also working, as project manager, in FEA – Festival dos Espaços dos Artistas de Lisboa, an artist-run festival dedicated to Lisbon-based artists’ spaces, created to promote the artistic autonomy and renewal of the art system in a collaborative and mutualistic perspective.