While he shares his name with one of the best-known luxury brands in the world—and although his latest work revolves around the culture and trappings of high fashion—Oakland-based Congolese choreographer Chanel “Byb” Bibene swears he has never spent more than $300 on a single article of clothing.
As for the decked-out dandies, or “sapeurs,” that Bibene both celebrates and skewers in Religion Kitendi: Dress Code—which premieres at the San Francisco International Arts Festival on Friday—well… not so much.
“On the weekends, they meet, they compete [to see] who has the most expensive clothes and shoes,” Bibene said, describing a typical gathering of sapeurs and sapeuses. “Imagine, $50,000 jacket or suits, you know, $10,000 pair of shoes.”
Known as La Sapologie or La Sape (a French acronym which translates to “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People” in English), the fashion movement is familiar to denizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bibene’s native Republic of the Congo.
Sapeurs take part in a tribute to the founder of the movement Stervos Niarcos Ngashie, on February 10, 2014 at the Gombe cemetery in Kinshasa. | Junior D. Kannah / AFP via Getty Images
In Religion Kitendi, Bibene takes a critical look at this colorful sartorial scene, which—in addition to providing sapeurs with a creative outlet—also has more complicated cultural implications.
Bibene hopes that his dance company’s take on the bold and brilliant world of La Sape can both call out the absurdities of the fashion trend while also highlighting its inventiveness and the joy it inspires.
On the one hand, Bibene notes that sapeurs often come from poor, working-class neighborhoods. He worries that instead of investing in their homes or their families “they spend all of their money on clothes.”
He is further frustrated that his fellow countrymen and women are spending their money on clothes produced by European designers—enriching the descendants of colonists in the process.
With Religion Kitendi, Bibene hopes to shed light on La Sape’s links to colonialism and slavery and encourage sapeurs to reconsider who they wear.
“Most of these European fashion designers, they don’t care about you. You’re African; they’re just taking your money, and you do free publicity for them,” said Bibene. “The worst form of slavery is mental slavery because when you are mentally colonized, a slave, sometimes you don’t even realize.”
Instead, Bibene would like to see those who embrace La Sapologie to spend their dollars on African designers and use local materials, instead of European-based labels.
Still, on the other hand, Bibene can’t deny how uplifting an energetic sapeur display can be. “It’s elegant, it’s art, it’s creative, it’s fun,” Bibene said.
Ultimately, Bibene hopes that Religion Kitendi: Dress Code will give audiences a fuller view of the Congo—one that zooms out from the myopic depictions of poverty and despair that the mainstream Western media tends to dwell upon.
“I want people to discover the Congolese culture”—to see its beauty, its complexity, its contradictions. “You know, just normal life.”
Religion Kitendi: Dress Code shows at 8 p.m. Friday, July 1, & Saturday, July 2, at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Tickets are $16 – $20.
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