Baudouin Mouanda: 'Clothes don't kill, weapons kill'

Photographer Baudouin Mouanda on the Congolese fashion subculture les sapeurs

Baudouin Mouanda walked a hard road to success. He entered university in Brazzaville, the Congolese capital, in 1993, only to take a forced sabbatical after the First Congo War broke out three years later. His father wouldn’t let him give up. After the war, he struck a deal: if Mouanda finished college, his father would buy him a camera.

This didn’t please Mouanda’s mother. ‘She was worried that I was taking photographs and not studying’, he recalls. He hid his new camera in a friend’s house, and would pick it up every day before going to school. Though his parents wanted him to pursue a career in law, Mouanda became interested in the potential of photography after avidly consuming publications like Paris Match at the French Institute in Brazzaville. ‘It was another kind of school, looking at these newspapers,’ he says, adding that there were no photography courses offered at his university.

After the even more devastating Second Congo War broke out, Mouanda put his self-taught skills to work. In 2003, he submitted photos of military police, orphans and homeless children – ’a portrait of Congo’, he calls them – to a photojournalism competition organised by Paris Match. He was selected from over 1,500 applicants to receive a travel grant to study his craft further in Paris, appeasing his parents’ concerns about photography. As the memories of the second war began to fade, Mouanda gravitated towards subjects that would relate ‘a more positive image of Africa and Congo’. One day, while on the metro, he heard three men speaking his mother tongue. From their brightly coloured suits, he immediately identified them as sapeurs, part of a fashion subculture born in Brazzaville in the 1930s and co-developed in the French capital.

‘These people are so sad. What can we do?’, Mouanda recalls them saying, noting the generally dour visage of the Parisian commuter. ‘So they started to make a show inside the metro. All the people started to smile, they were so happy. I thought: This is very interesting, I need to work on this subject.’


Upon returning to Brazzaville, Mouanda began to follow sapeur teams like the Red Devils, named after Congo’s national football team. ‘I started to try to understand their ideology,’ he says. ‘After the civil war in Congo, there were no more cinemas, nothing really to do. The sapeurs wanted to make people happy, make people smile. And more importantly, they wanted to give a message of peace.’ An encounter between a sapeur team and Congolese police sticks out in Mouanda’s memory. One sapeur in the confrontation stripped down to his underwear, saying: ‘Look, I have nothing but clothing from head to toe. The clothes don’t kill, weapons kill.’

‘That was a very important moment for me, and why I wanted to continue working on this subject,’ says Mouanda. ‘The message of freedom.’

Mouanda’s brilliant portraits of the sapeurs strike a balance between documentary and art. ‘Photography has to relate to the subject,’ he says when asked why many of his photos crop the heads off their ostensible subjects, emphasising instead vivid movement and colour. ‘When I shoot them, I’m next to them. I hear the music, hear the rhythm. The camera moves with the rhythm.’

The sapeurs are happy with the outcome. ‘Obviously they like to be seen,’ Mouanda smiles. The first international exhibit of Mouanda’s sapeurs photographs was held at Paris’ Musée Dapper in 2009, a sort of graduation for the photographer. Since then, the exhibit has travelled around the world, most recently stopping in Beijing for this year’s Francophonie Festival.

Though he’s often on the road, Mouanda still calls Brazzaville home. He’s currently putting the final touches on Collectif Génération Elili, a cultural association that will provide free photography training to orphans. ‘I want to break the cliché about photography not being a real job,’ he says of his latest pursuit, presumably remembering his own struggle as a fledgling photojournalist. ‘I’m very happy, very proud of what I’ve achieved. I’d like other people to benefit from it.’


Here, Mouanda tells Time Out the stories behind some of the photos in the Institut Francais exhibition, Les Sapeurs de Bacongo.


1 'Here you can see the sapeurs’ special way of walking. This photo is also interesting because there are two women. Many people think there are no women sapeurs, but there are. Many of the women sapeurs wear men’s suits as well as women’s dresses. So this photo, for example, could be in the first part of the day, and later these women might change into more traditionally feminine dresses.’


2 ‘This guy’s starting a clothing battle. There are codes in these battles. You need to make other people see, for example, the brand of the jacket, that it’s well stitched, the colours inside – everything. You also need to plan your speech, what you’re going to say. They are really careful about the colours and accessories they wear, it’s really important for them.’


3 ‘Here is a sapeur from Paris, he’d just come from the airport because he heard there was a sapeur battle and he wanted to show everyone that he’s the best. So he started to tell everyone how much his clothes cost. He said, “My shoes are 2,500 Euro, my watch is more than 1,000 Euro.” He was walking in the middle of the street, and the driver in the car behind him started to get angry, so the Parisian sapeur said, “Well, my clothes are more expensive than your car! I’m the king of Sape, you can’t bother me! It’s a public space.”’


4 ‘When you’re a sapeur in Paris, you need to have been to Brazzaville first. Brazzaville is considered the capital city of Sape [the culture to which sapeurs belong], so when you arrive you have to be baptised in the Sape way. The two men in the foreground are Parisian sapeurs, the man in the background is from Brazzaville. He knew these Parisian sapeurs were coming to his district to provoke him, so he thought he needed to prove to them that he was the best. You can see they’re wearing French colours: red, blue and white. The guy in the background changed his clothes just to fit these colours, to enter a kind of clothing battle.’


5 ‘This guy arrived in a place where there were already a lot of sapeurs. So to be noticed, he raised his feet for people to see that the colour of his socks matched the colour of his tie. There is a dress code among the sapeurs: a sapeur cannot wear too many colours. If you have two colours, it’s okay. Three colours is pushing the limit. Four colours and you’re out.’


6 ‘Here, one team of sapeurs is going to meet another. The guy here was not happy because he heard that the other sapeur team arrived before him. So he decided to take an umbrella with him in the car, like he’s the president or something. As you can see, the crowd is really happy to see him. They came into the street to applaud him.’

Les Sapeurs de Bacongo Institut Francais. Until Sun 24. See our event page for more details

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