“Can fashion be a vector for development in a very poor country?” Héctor Mediavilla, a photographer and documentary filmmaker from Barcelona, asked himself this question when he journeyed to Niger. Mediavilla, who has been a documentary photographer and visual storyteller for over 15 years, currently devotes much of his time to projects involving moving images. He wanted to do the same with this project. In his work he denounces injustice and focuses on identity issues of particular groups of people.

The founder of FIMA

Sidahmed Alphadi Seidnaly, Nigerien fashion designer and the founder and organiser of the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA), certainly believed that fashion could spark progress when he founded the festival back in 1998. Known as the ‘Magician of the Desert’, he was born in Timbuktu, Mali, in1957. He organised the first edition of FIMA in Agadez, in the open air of the Sahara Desert. He wanted to bring together African designers and handicraft makers with their international counterparts to promote African cultures, encourage investment and promote economic and social development.

Eli Kuame, a fashion designer from the Ivory Coast, helps one of the few light-skinned models into one of his dresses.
Eli Kuame, a fashion designer from the Ivory Coast, helps one of the few light-skinned models into one of his dresses.

For these efforts Alphadi was designated UNESCO’s ‘Artist for Peace’ earlier this year, in recognition of his “commitment to culture and development at the service of peace and human dignity, for his contribution to the promotion of tolerance and for his dedication to the ideals of the organisation”. In his capacity as the UNESCO Artist for Peace, Alphadi, who also runs his own foundation to empower women and children in the Sahara region, will work to transform FIMA into an itinerant event so that future editions may take place in other African countries, notably Mali and Ivory Coast. He also intends to develop the festival’s educational function.

The impact of terrorism

The ninth and most recent edition of one of the most important cultural events in Niger unfortunately had to take place in a secure area in the country’s capital, Niamey, because of recent terrorist activity. After this edition in 2013, it unfortunately hasn’t been possible to organise the bi-yearly festival because of the terrorist threat, but perhaps FIMA will be back next year.

Mediavilla, for one, definitely hopes so, because although he didn’t come back with an answer to the question he set out to answer, he did return with enough images to show that it might be a possibility. For example, he photographed two sisters, 17-year old Miriam and 15-year old Nadia, who both share the same dream: to become a top model.

Miriam and Nadia, who want to be top models, with their mother in their living room. They had just returned from church.
Miriam and Nadia, who want to be top models, with their mother in their living room. They had just returned from church.

Living in Niger, which has ranked last in the United Nations Human Development Index for the past few years, the sisters’ chances of having a career in modelling are limited and FIMA is the only platform in their country for taking their first steps into the modelling world. “They come from a middle-class family,” Mediavilla explains, “and modelling could just be a hobby for them, but Miriam has taken the idea seriously ever since she was a little girl. Nadia, on the other hand, was never too interested in modelling, but due to the interest she awakened in the local industry and the people around her, she is taking the possibility of a career in modelling more seriously.”

The artistry of the Sapeurs

Before Mediavilla became interested in FIMA, he set his eyes on the Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People, known as Sapeurs, in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. “At the start of the 20th century, when the French arrived in the Congo, the myth of Parisian elegance and sophistication was born among the youth of the Bakongo ethnic group, many of whom were working for the colonisers. In 1922, Grenard André Matsoua was the first Congolese man to come back from Paris dressed as a genuine Frenchman. His arrival caused great admiration among his fellow countrymen and he became known as the first Grand Sapeur”, Mediavilla explains.

“Supported by the respect and admiration of their community, today’s Sapeurs consider themselves artists. They add a touch of glamour to their humble environment through their refined manners and impeccable clothing style. Each one is unique; each possessing a particular and individualised repertoire of gestures. They all share the dream of going to Paris and returning to Brazzaville as the ambassadors of supreme elegance.”

The struggle to make a living as a model

Though Mediavilla hasn’t yet had the opportunity to go back to Niger, he does still stay in touch with the two sisters – just as he does with Ahoua, who was 23 when he met her and started modelling when she was 19. It was her second time on the catwalks at FIMA and she is actually making a living modelling at various African fashion festivals. In addition, she works in a disco.

Ahoua, a model from Niger. Ahoua usually goes out at night at the weekend with her friends, most of whom are expatriates. She walks to the Alizé nightclub and sits with a girlfriend on the terrace by the Niger river.
Ahoua, a model from Niger. Ahoua usually goes out at night at the weekend with her friends, most of whom are expatriates. She walks to the Alizé nightclub and sits with a girlfriend on the terrace by the Niger river.

With Niger facing growing Islamisation in recent years, Ahoua has to cover her hair when she goes out. Wearing a miniskirt in the street is forbidden, creating a sort of double life for her – one of oppression during the daytime and freedom at night.

The clash between fundamentalists and fashion

Alphadi found this out the hard way: In 2000, for example, his flagship workshop and boutique was shattered by fundamentalists for making dresses that showed women’s bodies. In 2011 just a day before his FIMA event, his workshops in Niamey were set on fire.

With that the fashion festival became caught in the same struggle: On the one hand, it is an event that made people from all over the world come to Niger and thus get to know this ‘forgotten’ country, but on the other hand it did not adhere to the strict Islamic rules imposed by insurgents. Just when Alphadi wanted the world to realise that “Africa is not just poverty, fighting and disease – Africa is also art and design”, to use his words, he wasn’t able to show that anymore.

The fact that FIMA offered a unique platform to local designers and models and that their motto is ‘Creativity for Peace and Development in Africa’, doesn’t matter to those who say it’s against their law. Perhaps the recent elections can bring change in the future and create a safe space for FIMA to be revived.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to return then and record the event”, Mediavilla says. “There is so much more to be shown about FIMA and fashion in Niger in general that it would be a shame if the festival couldn’t return. And of course I would love to meet my former subjects again and see how they’re doing.”

Jorrit Dijkstra