We’ve met Héctor Mediavilla, the talented Spanish photographer in Geneva at a round-table on African Fashion (May 2013). He presented last January his first monograph, S.A.P.E, written in three languages (English, Spanish, French) on the phenomenon of Sape. These elegant Congolese men impress as they disturb. We decided to extend the conversation to satisfy our curiosity both on the photographer and on his fascinating subject of study. The writer Alain Mabanckou wrote the foreword of this extremely informative book. The images are strong, beautiful and disconcerting. Like us, African dandies live for fashion. Beyond appearances, they emphasize our personal contradictions, the erring ways of post-colonial Africa, but also those of an entire industry. Héctor Mediavilla and his empathy offer us this distorting mirror simply by the intelligence of his eyes.
How did you come to photography?
I liked photography since I was a kid. It was one of my hobbies when I was a teenager but I never thought of it as a profession. Actually I decided to study economics in Esade, where I also got an MBA. After working a few years in marketing for a Japanese multinational I decided to move towards the cultural sector, studying a post grade in “Cultural Management” at the Ramón Llull University. Finally, in 2001, I decided to become myself a creator, a professional photographer. It had to do with the fact that I loved knowing other cultures and travelling. As I see it, photography is a great medium to understand thru documenting in depth other people lives, to investigate realities that seduce or intrigue me.
Why did you choose to work on this topic? When you started in 2003, nobody explored it visually?
I first went to Brazzaville to train local photographers in a European Program to support visual arts in Congo. Besides the training I intended to produce a photographic story about African daily life that challenged the usual Western stereotypes about Africa. I did not want to reflect on war, famine, cardboard tribalism or the continent’s natural beauty in the common straightforward and dramatic approach. I wanted to capture other issues that would help understand the complexity of African socio-economic reality and its connection to a colonial past.
On my research while I was working on Brazzaville I found the Sape movement, which I had never heard about before. It was a serendipity issue: I met a group of sapeurs at La Détente when I was thinking about documenting a place that worked both as a petrol station and a dancing bar. They seduced me from the very beginning but when I read the essays written by Justin-Daniel Gandoulou about the sapeurs, which had been published at the end of the 80´s I understood it was the story I wanted to document. It was a typical Congolese phenomenon with great social and anthropological richness. When I continued my research I was very surprised that almost nobody had explored it visually. There was just a documentary film done in the 80´s but there was not any in-depth photographic work about this fascinating movement. I decided to be the first one.
How do you feel about this fashion consumption? How do I feel about the contradiction of spending so much money in clothing when they have other basic needs, which are not fulfilled?
If we speak about most of sapeurs there is an obvious contradiction between their wealth and the money they spend in clothes. I believe this is a personal choice. I am not the one to judge others but I would rather put the puzzle pieces together to understand their motivations. In most cases their families are proud of them and their popularity in society as long as they cover the basic needs of the family.
According to the Maslow’s pyramid of human needs hierarchy, there is a contradiction because in many sapeurs go first to the 4th (acknowledgement) or 5th and last level (self-fulfilment) of the pyramid when they still have not fully covered the first levels. Sapeurs may be one exception of this psychological theory.
French philosopher, Nicolas Grimaldi says « Dandysm develops on a social failure. Chaoses of history expel this man from his society, he has no more his place, and he withdraws. He only waits to reign on him. »
I cannot agree with him neither disagrees. I should know the context of his reflection. If we speak about Sapeurs I would state something different: Sapeurs want to be part of their society through their elegance and manners. It is their attempt to be taken into account in society despite their origin. They reign over themselves but they do not move away from society, just the contrary. They are an important piece of their society.
Why did you want to document the Parisian side of the Sape?
I believe this is a very important part of their reality. Like Muslims need to go once in their lifetime to La Mecca, sapeurs need to confirm their Sape in Paris so as to come back to Brazzaville as “grands sapeurs”. If they do not do this, they will never be considered as one of the great names of the Sape.
However when they go to Paris, they find a city, which is not what they though it would be. Life in Paris is difficult for them, especially if they do not have “residence papers”. They have to confront this reality to fulfil their dream. If we only show sapeurs in Congo we are missing an important part of their reality.
What do Sapeurs and Africa bring to you?
I cannot neglect they are an important part of my life. I love Africa despite all its contradictions and the difficulties their people have to face in their everyday life. The continent is so rich that it is a terrible that many African people suffer so much.
I love their attitude towards life, their positivity, the importance they give to family and community, their spontaneous smiles, their attitude to life, the way the live the present. They are not as most Western people, always thinking about the future, which misses the most important thing in life, which to me is living moment to moment without thinking so much about the future. We only have the present moment.
Sapeurs taught me the importance of being proud of oneself, of having a dream to move forwards in life. ¡They want to be someone in life. They want to be accepted in society no matter what their origin is! Despite all the social problems they face in Congo, they try to make their best with their lifes.
We may not agree the way they do it but we should not judge them since we are not in their position facing their political problems or basic issues like having almost not job opportunities or not having basic needs covered such as electricity (they face electricity cuts daily) or access to drinking water.
Some sapeurs, with whom I have shared a lot of time, are still good friends and we continue to communicate no matter they live in Brazzaville or Paris.
Héctor Mediavilla, “S.A.P.E”, Editions Intervalles (2012), 160p.[media url= »http://vimeo.com/40554611″ width= »600″ height= »400″]
More information about Hector Mediavilla: hectormediavilla.com