“When I dress like this, it’s like I have the Holy Spirit in me,” a middle-aged taxi driver by the name of Elyfontaine told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “I’m at ease, as if I were sinless.”

He is one of the Sappers, part of the “S.A.P.E.: Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes/ Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People” in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo. They’re the subject of photos by Héctor Mediavilla of Barcelona, Spain, on view at the College of the Holy Cross’s Cantor Art Gallery in Worcester from Oct. 18 through Dec. 15, 2017.

Sappers are generally working-class dandies, in this country that has struggled with war and poverty, who spend princely sums to reinterpret European men’s fashion with vibrant African flair. It’s said that the tradition dates to the 1920s when the Republic of Congo was a French colony and Congolese men began adopting French styles.

“The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behavior and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks,” Mediavilla told The London Telegraph in 2014. He’s been documenting Sapeurs since 2003. “How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered.”

“Creativity is very important,” Mediavilla told NPR in 2013. “It’s not only about spending a lot of money on the clothes, but also the way they speak, the way they move. … It’s a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give you many opportunities. … It’s about [being] confident in oneself despite the circumstances.”

Héctor Mediavilla, "Lamame in Simon Kimbangu Avenue," 2008. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)
Héctor Mediavilla, “Lamame in Simon Kimbangu Avenue,” 2008. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)

Sapeur Lamame, also called the “Old Parisian,” walks down Simon Kimbangu Avenue in the Republic of Congo on Independence Day (Aug. 15). He has said, “When I dress elegantly, I go out and people worship me, they shout out my name. I then forget all of my problems…poverty, war, rheumatism in my left foot. These are moments of glory, moments in which I am tremendously happy.”

Héctor Mediavilla, "Severin with his father's portrait," 2004. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)
Héctor Mediavilla, “Severin with his father’s portrait,” 2004. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)

The Sapeur Severin (aka “Le Salopard”) follows in the footsteps of his father who was also a Sapeur (Severin holds his photo in his living room).

Héctor Mediavilla, "Bienvenu Mouzieto and the blue wall," 2004. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)
Héctor Mediavilla, “Bienvenu Mouzieto and the blue wall,” 2004. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)

The Sapeur Bienvenu Mouzieto poses in front of his house in the Bacongo neighborhood of Brazzaville, Congo.

Héctor Mediavilla, "Severin Mouyengo, aka 'Le Salopard,'" 2006. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)
Héctor Mediavilla, “Severin Mouyengo, aka ‘Le Salopard,'” 2006. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)

Severin Mouyengo, a Sapeur since the ’70s, poses on the front steps of his family house in the Bacongo neighborhood.

Héctor Mediavilla, "Hassan Salvador and his two friends," 2008. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)
Héctor Mediavilla, “Hassan Salvador and his two friends,” 2008. (Courtesy of Holy Cross)

Invited to raise the glamour of a wedding, Hassan Salvador and two friends await a taxi.

Categories: Art