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Grace and Style at MoAD 

Wednesday, May 11 2016

Clad in impossibly elegant tailoring and never failing to accessorize, the Sapeurs are a Congolese subculture bent on looking suave no matter the financial cost. A pun on sape, French for "attire," the name derives from the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (or, the Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People). With their complex reappropriation of Eurocentric fashion during the colonial era, Sapeurs cut a particularly striking figure in sub-Saharan African cities marked by endemic poverty.

They're also a focus of one of two exhibits at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD). "Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculinity" displays several dozen images of men of various ages in extraordinarily fancy duds. Some Sapeurs spend thousands of dollars on clothes, while others get their grandfathers' suits hemmed. And even at its most approachable from an American standpoint, this exhibit's center of gravity is firmly African. To compare it to two famously well-dressed musicians who died days apart, it's more Papa Wemba than Prince.

In some contexts, the sight of a well-dressed black man can cause (white) anxiety on par with the panic over gang apparel. Blowhard commentators like Bill O'Reilly frequently reduce the black male experience to tropes about street fashion — "Pull your pants up and get a job" — but images like Arteh Odjidja's "Stranger in Moscow" series play with discomfort in creative ways. In one, a dashing black man in a three-piece suit and shades looks at the Kremlin, seemingly oblivious to the stare of a wary Russian soldier whose expression suggests he's not entirely convinced that this man is a tourist taking in the onion domes and not an MI6 operative. Others are just sexy, like Sara Shamsavari's photograph of a man in a turquoise suit against an emerald-green wall. It's coolness as defiance; this guy's confident enough to exude in the act of power-clashing.

"We're bombarded with images of black men as thugs and athletes," curator Shantrelle P. Lewis says. "Oppositional fashion is nothing new."

Calling it an analog to hip-hop's use of sampling, she makes the connection between black masculinity and the idea of the trickster god, and of men using the act of masquerade to transform into a higher being. If fashion is about commerce and labels, then style is different: Even when they're apolitical, these Sapeurs are revolutionary.

"Such intentionality behind adornment is considered feminine," Lewis says. But not in the case of these dapper, almost hyper-masculine gents, like peacocks overshadowing their (unseen) peahens. As a companion to "Dandy Lion," MoAD is also screening an eight-week film series called Sweet & Dandy that runs through late June, with documentaries such as The Importance of Being Elegant (Thursday, May 19), George Amponsah's look at Sapeur style in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or AFRO-PUNK: The Movie That Sparked the Movement, a look at black rebels in a largely white subculture.

Incidentally, the headliner at the 2015 Afro-Punk Festival in Brooklyn was none other than Grace Jones, the Jamaican-born high priestess of bewitching androgyny. MoAD's second exhibit, "The Grace Jones Project," uses Jones' extensive body of work and influence on fashion as a jumping-off point to look at how deeply we've been under the spell cast by this "cultural drag magician" for almost 40 years.

Unlike the all-male "Dandy Lion," which focuses tightly on male sartorial agency in the Global South, "The Grace Jones Project" roams more freely, landing on phenomena as disparate as The House of Xtravaganza (from Harlem's drag ball culture) to the performance artist Narcissister riding an exercise bike decked out with sex toys, to a scene in Eddie Murphy's Boomerang in which Jones, wearing a tree-branch skirt in a high-concept ad for a fragrance line, cackles uncontrollably as she gives birth to a perfume bottle. This relaxation allows for more than a bit of silliness, as with videos by Harold Offeh in which he replicates some of Jones' bodywork in an apartment.

Although it would no doubt be compelling to look at the toothbrushes and oyster-shucking utensils she's used and discarded through the years, "The Grace Jones Project" is not a compendium of personal effects owned by the mysterious musician. You can, however, trace her career arc through her album art and watch eight or so of her videos in a row (including the uniquely weird and wonderful "Slave to the Rhythm"). Curated by Nicole J. Caruth, this show is as fun as it is brainy, and it will still be up by the time Jones returns to the Bay Area, to play a show at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley on Aug. 27. One can easily imagine her strolling through MoAD's galleries while she's in town, catching a lump in her throat as she realizes what the children have done under her influence, and then laughing, laughing, laughing.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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