The SAPE movement in the Republic of the Congo, as portrayed in Héctor Mediavilla’s photographs, is rooted in French imperialism.
From the early days of colonization, Paris was considered as the epicentre of modern civilization. According to many Congolese people, this was best reflected in a particular elegance that was expressed in style and above all, in fashion. Some men bought expensive French designer brands and strolled through the streets of Brazzaville, admired by many passers-by. They called themselves the Sapeurs and joined to form the SAPE movement – the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Entertainers and Elegant Persons). The movement still exists today as an informal, proud association of men who like to use elegance to counteract the misfortunes of daily life. Mediavilla’s photographs offer windows into the everyday life of the Sapeurs, ultimately revealing the fascinating contrast between their sophisticated appearance and their visibly modest environment. Western media has shown great interest in the theme, and in 2014 Mediavilla directed a commercial for Guinness Brewery starring a group of Sapeurs. The wide reception has been accompanied by controversy: the Sapeurs are accused of colonialism, or at least of glorifying a colonial idea of beauty. This accusation, however, does not bother them. They regard themselves as artists, escaping from the troubles of everyday life by wearing elegant outfits and giving people pleasure.