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The Lady Dandies of the DRC come to SOAS: An Exhibition Review

  • Culture

By Khadija Kothia, BA History

On the first floor of the Brunei Gallery, The Lady Dandies of the DRC have come to SOAS.Dressed in flamboyant and vibrant glory, the ladies stride confidently, overwhelming the canvassed frames they’re enclosed within. This is very much central to the story of ‘The Lady Dandies.’

Initially beginning as a male-dominated resistance movement at the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 1920s image of the anti-colonial Congolese men taking to the streets in European ‘masters’ clothing, has recently transformed into a statement of female strength and power; titled “Les Sapeuses.”

Spread across the whitewashed wall, Congolese photojournalist, Junior D. Kannah’s work etches from corner to corner. Upon each frame stands a Sapeuse, dressed in male clothing, against the backdrop of the hustle and bustle of Congolese daily life.

For these women, their long jackets, top hats and ruffled shirts mean much more than dress-up play. For these proud women, it’s a lifestyle.

Barbara Kasande heralds this attitude. Standing directly opposite the exhibition door in a bright red coat and tartan scarf, she recalls her idolisation of her brother, a Sapeur, and the wonderful feeling she cherishes of her first Sapeuse outing. Inda Garbie, with her arms outstretched in a pink tartan-printed long coat and head towards the sky, describes the same pride, “La Sape is a calling, and a gift.”

But for all the delight and strength captured of the Lady Dandies, the political importance of their role is not undermined. Within their voices, which have been immortalised into captions that lay tall besides their photographs, the collective hope of transforming attitudes towards a society that celebrates the diversity of women runs strong. “Many people think that Sapeuses are lesbians. Being a lesbian is a big taboo in Africa”, says 45-year-old, bar-owning Kimbondo Dumbo. She is free, independent and happy. Like all these women, she is ready to lead Congolese, and arguably all African women, away from the shackles of the social taboos that restrict their freedom.

In capturing and bringing to life the greatly inspiring accounts of The Lady Dandies of the DRC, Junior D. Kannah does a brilliant job of transforming the first floor of Brunei Gallery into that of a Congolese catwalk. Standing tall, proud, and most of all, outlandishly happy, the bravery and courage of the Sapeuses brings with it a story of optimism and strength, leaving one undoubtedly inspired and uncontrollably heart-warmed by the portrayal of what can be achieved through the determination of individual human spirit.

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