Interview with The Darfur Sartorialist
Style and fashion can be found in the most unexpected places, even in Darfur – a place that is burnt into our minds as a place of suffering and catastrophe. Amazing color combination, wonderful smiles and attitudes showing signs of hope are some of the things that make up the Darfuri style. As Pedro Matos, the Darfur Sartorialist, puts is: “Darfur is fashionable. Beyond the conflict and the images engraved in our minds lies a proud people wearing colour combinations unlikely in the trendy West.”
Pedro Matos is a humanitarian aid worker who’s been living in Darfur for the past 3 years. The project The Darfur Sartorialist reflects his own surprise with the men and women he found in this remote region of Sudan, and how fashionable people turn out to be in all corners of the World. We asked Pedro some questions about his project, and this is what he said:
What was your motivation for starting your project The Darfur Sartorialist?
I went to work and live in Darfur and I soon realised how far off the people were from my original perception of war, suffering and victims. These were people that acted in a proud way and took particular care of their looks, even in the middle of some of the harshest environments in the World. I started taking photos for myself and, after a couple of years, realised i had gathered so many, i could put up a selection to share my initial surprise with a wider audience.
Putting Darfur and Sartorialist in a title seems like an oxymoron, what made you realize you could combine the two?
It is an oxymoron and the two words are not meant to sit comfortably together. I am hoping the initial reaction of rejection of the idea as insensitive will eventual open up to a discussion in our minds as to whether the images we have of muslim and African women are correct. While many people in the photos suffered a lot with the war, they are also the same people taking an extra care with their looks and the way they present themselves in public.
How would you define style in Darfur? What do you think is the biggest difference from Western fashion?
Style is a curious mix of the traditional abaya (Arab tunic) and toub (many meters of colourful cloth wrapped around the body and head), the influence of outside fashion in more open societies (mostly Egypt) is greatly shaping the style young women choose to wear. Some of the photos have girls in orange denim jackets, pointy high-heeled shoes and chinese-made Chanel belts. One of the biggest differences to Western fashion are the bold colour combinations (even in elderly women) that would be frowned upon in the west. The other is the fact that most skin is covered, with the exception of the hands, feet and face. Married women can often take liberties on this that single women can’t, breastfeeding while talking to a (rather surprised) white man for example is perceived as perfectly normal.
Do you think art and projects such as your own can contribute to change the situation of the people in the region in any way?
I sure hope so. The main hope I have with the Darfur Sartorialist is to have people in the Western world question whether the narrative of tragedy, muslim oppression and the hopelessness of Africa makes sense. If people realise that reality is often complex and full of paradoxes, then our governments (which, incidentally, are also the major donors to aid and development) will eventually deal differently with the problems facing the poorest regions in the World.
Do you have any additional information about the project or the situation in the region you would like to share?
I would like to keep the photos as context-free as i can. Some of them cause such a contrast with the image of Darfur we have in our mind, that i would like that feeling to linger on for as long as possible to stir an internal dialogue within ourselves.
The Travelettes wish Pedro the best of luck in his continuing work as a humanitarian worker and with his project. You can follow The Darfur Sartorialist on his Facebook page.
She loves cities with imperfect facades, photography, traveling by bike, vintage hunting, and everything that comes with cheese. Follow her visual diary at anchoredpaperplane.com.