Fashion Forward in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Ties to Persistence and Peace
In The Monuments Men, George Clooney as Frank Stokes says, “If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed.” Artists such as Meni Mbugha and Mapendo Sumuni, recognizing that same urgency today in Congo, are taking initiative to preserve a rich cultural heritage in the midst of the deadliest conflict since World War II.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), armed groups bring death and devastation to mining areas, drive whole communities off their lands, and use rape as a weapon of war. Yet, Mapendo Sumuni declares, “War is just another chapter in our lives. I am not going to let it define who I am.” Sumuni opened an art gallery in Goma named Kivu Nuru which means “lights from Kivu” in order to portray the Congolese people’s resilient spirit and culture.
Another individual worthy of such light, Meni Mbugha is leading the movement to preserve pygmy culture. Mining not only fuels the DRC conflict, but also increases deforestation which threatens the livelihoods of pygmy people in the Mbuti tribe of the Epulu forest. Besides hunting and gathering, the tribe carves patterns on bark to sell to tourists or to use in ceremonies. To preserve their culture and to work towards poverty alleviation, Mbugha translates the ethnic minority group’s tree bark designs onto fabrics. Mbugha believes “that these indigenous people could use fabric in place of bark … and make money with their knowledge.”
Just as the pygmy people etch their perspectives on bark, back in Goma, Sumuni hopes to alter the world’s view of Congo by partnering with more than a dozen local artists and expanding to the international market. Sumuni claims, “People in the world will see us as a new generation of artists who want to go further – not as rapists.”
One artful clothing organization, DRC ApeParel , already sells globally with the mission to break down ethnic boundaries and promote cultural awareness. To raise hope in Congo, ApeParel uses clothing to connect people around the world back to the conflict in DRC and inspire action.
Sumuni used a May 31, 2014 fashion show as another platform to represent the spirit of Congo. She invited the sapeurs, a subculture of dapper dressers in the DRC who have become world-famous for adorning themselves in high fashion garments that make a political statement and express a liberating, empowering non-conformity. Sumuni declares, “People need to express themselves. It’s essential to their own identity. And each expression is unique and adds to the mosaic of life. To express is to live.” Kwame Lebon Ekumali Longange, known for his unconventional tie skirt, was featured in Sumuni’s fashion show.
In 2012, actress Emmanuelle Chriqui hosted the Gen Art Fashion Show during New York City’s Fashion Week in which models wore Congo t-shirts in support of the Enough Project’s Raise Hope for Congo Campaign. Participants did more than walk on the runway, they walked to raise awareness and build solidarity.
Marceline Habyarimana epitomizes the determination. Fleeing from violence while carrying a sewing machine on her head, Habyarimana came to the Kibati camp in Goma where already an estimated 60,000 people have sought refuge. Now, she sells dresses for two dollars, so the camp can be a place of color. Simply saving her sewing machine has been enough to connect people and foster hope.
All across Congo, artists, models, minority groups, and activists are beginning to stitch together a network dedicated to saving the living treasure of their artisanal and creative practices. Although faced with the destruction of war, the Congolese people are showing fashion and art have ties to peace.