Milan-based photographer Daniele Tamagni’s book “Gentlemen of Bacongo” features the pageantry of Congalese sapeurs, or dandies – a subculture of men who pay extreme attention to, and take great pride in, their appearance and sartorial style.
So, in a country ravaged by war, instability and poverty, these men go all out: three-piece suits, kilts, silk ties, polished leather wing tips, bowler hats, shockingly bright colors. The fashion sense is amazing in itself, but in the context of the Republic of the Congo, even more so.
Just before the opening of his exhibit at Michael Hoppen Contemporary in London (May 7-June 7), we talked to Daniele about this singular project.
How did you first come across the sapeurs and Le SAPE? How long did you spend in Brazzaville, and was there a process you had to go through to gain your subjects’ trust?
I first went to Congo in 2006 and I was delighted to see such elegant people but surprised at the same time of their style that was unique. I didn’t see [anything like this] before. At this period I didn’t know anything about sapeurs, but after I came back to London I did some research and I found in a library inside an anthology of African photography a page written by a Franck Bitemo: “The dreams of Arca Sapeur de Brazzaville.”
It was a sort of comic with pictures and captions. I was fascinated [and wanted] to do a project about the sapeurs. When I went in 2007, in Brazzaville I met Arca (who unfortunately died a few months after I met him; this is why I dedicate the book to him). After that I met sapeurs leaders like Hassan Salvador and KVV Mouzieto that taught me a lot about the meaning of the SAPE and so on. In this way I then continued to do my project with different gentlemen in different situations. I continued in 2008, and this year I interviewed sapeurs living in Paris and London. It’s important to spend time with them in order to gain the subject’s trust.
What drew you to this project?
I am a street photographer and I am interested in urban style worldwide. With sapeurs there is something more than an ephemeral phenomenon of style. I have always had a fascination with African culture; this is why I am undertaking specific projects related to music, fashion, and before, African religion in Africa, but also in Cuba, London and Milan.
Moreover, I have a lot of African and Caribbean friends with whom I share music and cultural interests. Although I am Italian I guess I have been a little bit “Africanised” in the last few years and this has influenced my style and subject choices. [I am] producing portfolios which might generate a critical reflection about the identity of these people who consider elegance their main reason for existence inside a social reality so different and distant from our society. My aim was to explore African communities beyond the stereotypes. “Gentlemen of Bakongo” explores a social aspect extremely related to a specific cultural context, the “sapeurs” of Brazzaville Congo. I usually collaborate for an Italian bimonthly magazine called “Africa.”
Do you hope your photos convey a message, or do you leave it up to the viewer?
The pictures have to speak themselves, but producing these images, I would like that people don’t see them just as a phenomenon of style, of an African urban subculture. There is something more. It might generate a critical reflection about the identity of these people. Congo reflects the paradox of our society. It juxtaposes symbols of excess and conspicuous consumption amidst some of the most agonizing scenes of urban poverty. This contrast between the perfection of sapeurs and the urban background context is amazing.
And what’s your personal take on the message or statement of the sapeur culture?
If we consider SAPE just as a symbol of consumerism and excessive hedonism we don’t understand it completely. The sapeurs dedicate all their attention to clothes because it is a passion, so they afford many sacrifices to be able to get clothes. The clothes, brands, taste of elegance and glamorous looks are a key to understanding the inspiration. People like sapeurs because they bring positivity and hope. I learned also that Congolese are very gentle and friendly. For a real sapeur, gentleness and refinement and manners have to be as important as the labels they wear.
What was your biggest challenge in photographing the sapeurs?
Patience. To be patient. Sapeurs are unpredictable. They’re vain and prideful and sometimes they can change ideas easily.
I’d imagine the sapeurs are naturals in front of the camera. Is it easier, or more fun, to photograph subjects that have so much style and attitude?
It depends. Sometimes it can be easier, but sometimes you would like them to be more natural. Some of them tend to have funny poses that look grotesque or ridiculous. I don’t want to give this impression. But sapeurs are actors, and the performances with outfits and accessories are important aspects.
When photographing any subculture, but especially one as specific and stylized as this, is there pressure to get it right, to accurately portray their essence?
Yes, of course.
I read that you speak the sapeurs’ language, Lingala. Is that right? Do think that was crucial in getting the images that you ultimately did?
No. I speak French fluently, [and that] is enough.
How did you learn photography?
I started photography quite recently. I have done some studies, but before my background was in history of art. I have two degrees.
In terms of other photographers, who do you find inspirational?
I don’t have a specific photographer. My eye is a mix of art, street and fashion imagery. I try to generate my own eyes. My background in history of art helped me in this way.
What’s next for you?
I want to undertake a project about women in Senegal who have a particular culture [dedicated to] the arts of seduction and elegance.
To see more of Daniele’s work, go to his site here.