This photograph was taken by Congolese photographer Badouin Mouanda in Brazzaville in 2009. The man in the background is coming out to battle the two dandies, or sapeurs, who have come to challenge him on his own turf. Its a show of elegant, restrained power, held in the street for all to see.
  • Courtesy the artist and M.I.A. Gallery
  • This photograph was taken by Congolese photographer Badouin Mouanda in Brazzaville in 2009. The man in the background is coming out to "battle" the two dandies, or sapeurs, who have come to challenge him on his own turf. It's a show of elegant, restrained power, held in the street for all to see.

The word for them is "sapeurs." It means, loosely, African dandies. They're almost always men. They live by a code. They don't fight. And they were first "discovered" photographically by an Italian man visiting Brazzaville in 2007 who exported them and turned them into a popular book and fascination for outsiders. That photographer's name is Daniele Tamagni.

That is not the photographer we're talking about today.

The photographer we're talking about is Badouin Mouanda. He is Congolese, and his pictures are different from Tamagni's—Tamagni once posed a group of sapeurs in a pile of trash to drive home the point that they live in poverty, lest their bright, flashy clothes let you forget even for a photographic moment.

Badouin Mouanda, on the ground.
  • Badouin Mouanda, on the ground.
Mouanda's shots—seen in a full exhibition at M.I.A. Gallery downtown through Saturday—are more hectic than Tamagni's. They're less staged, more of the moment, more active, less monumental. They're nothing more than fragments. And why should they not? Why should looking at a photograph leave you believing that you know an entire world?

Mouanda seems to achieve this by placing his camera in the center of what's going on. He's not controlling the players; he often appears to be positioned on the ground, shooting upward. You can picture the scene in the dusty streets: him ducking and weaving and bobbing and zooming out of their way at the last possible second. You can imagine the sapeurs playing with him, using him in their show. The photographs are not the only or even the primary artworks being created at the time they are being created: they are equal to or even slightly lesser than the live theater that's going on. It's a form of respect.

And the sapeurs are artists of the streets of Brazzaville. From a recent CNN story:

Although every Sapeur has their own unique style, certain looks are especially popular. Pastel-colored three-piece suits are a staple of the Sapeurs' fastidiously assembled ensembles. They are finished off with a tie, cravat or bow tie — and the obligatory pocket square protruding from their immaculately tailored jackets. Cigars and pipes — lit or unlit — are de rigueur. ...

Some disapprove of the Sapeurs spending what little money they have on the frivolities of fashion. But [Didier] Gondola [author of History of the Congo] argues that being a Sapeur isn't just about vanity — it's a political statement

In the 1970s "authenticity" was part of the state ideology in the DRC — a policy that prohibited the wearing of Western suits. The Sapeurs rebelled by wearing aggressively non-conformist clothes, including leather suits, says Gondola. To this day Kinshasa's Sapeurs dress less conservatively than their suit-sporting Brazzaville brethren.

"The Sapeur is also about masculinity, politics, changing the stereotypes about how people view Africa," says Gondola. "It's about a lot of things, about beating the West at its own game, which is fashion: 'You colonized us but we dress better than you.'"