Fighting oppression through fashion: Africa's dandies.

Story highlights

  • A new exhibition explores African male and female dandies.
  • "The cult of the cloth has been very significant throughout African cultures for millennia," says its curator.

(CNN)The new African aesthetic is not what you'd expect. There are girls dressed like boys and men hoarding money to splash out on expensive luxury shoes.

Now, the Brighton Photo Biennial is turning its focus on these fashion-obsessed millennials by featuring The Dandy Lion Project -- a look at black men and women who like to dress provocatively as dandies.
    The exhibit has already been across the U.S. and parts of Europe, reaching Amsterdam and now Brighton. But the updated UK edition features women dandies for the first time.
    "It's 2016 and it would be funny to have a conversation about black masculinity and not include women who present as masculine or feminine on that spectrum," says curator Shantrelle Lewis, who has been amassing images of black dandies since 2010.
    Lebogang from fashion collective the Smarteez, Joburg style Battles 2, photographed by Daniele Tamagni.
    Africa's style collectives hold global currency -- this is the second exhibition in the UK within six months to focus on black dandies, and this style trend has appeared in a recent advert by Guinness, as well as a music video by Beyonce's sister, Solange.
    But it's more than just fetishism or "poverty porn", insists Lewis. "People have been shooting black dandies for years," she acknowledges. "When I first started curating the exhibition I was really anti including any artists who were not of African descent. So I really wanted to look at dressing up not as a response to racism and discrimination but as a source of pride."
    "The cult of the cloth has been very significant throughout African cultures for millennia," says Lewis. "It speaks to an African aesthetic that is always persistent throughout the continent and even throughout the diaspora."

    Clothing battles

    The Smarteez , Joburg style battles series, photographed by Daniele Tamagni.
    Within the collection are images by Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia, looking at the fictional league of extravagant grannies, who were former government leaders, as well as Baudouin Mouanda, capturing Congo's sapeur clothing battles held on the streets of Brazzaville.
    The exhibition will showcase around 150 images taken by more than 30 photographers over the past 10 years.
    Among them is budding South African photographer Harness Hamese. The 30-year-old started his career in photography after developing an interest in black and white images.
    A chance meeting with a group of dandy enthusiasts named Khumbula (a Nguni word that means "remember") led him to start documenting their street style.
    Andile Biyana and Lourens Gebhardt -- In Sync, 2014, by Harness Hamese.
    The idea, both for Khumbula and Hamese was to try to look back at a time in South African history where options were limited for their parents. The images are staged in a way to convey how their parents used fashion as an expression and statement of independence.
    "That kind of clothing represents a time in the South African history where our parents used to dress like that," says Hamese. "A time, when they were very oppressed."
    "For me, it sort of communicates the mindset that even in oppression we can still dress up and look good and be determined as a people to represent ourselves on an appropriate level."

    Sense of drama

    Give thank to thoughtful hands -- Bafana Mthembu nd  ndile Biyana of Khumbula, by Harness Hamese.
    Social media has made it possible for the photographer's images to spread across the globe, he notes.
    Being part of the exhibition and seeing it travel across the U.S. and Europe "makes me feel like I'm actually a part of a very important part of black culture," he says. "As an African person it feels great to show the culture that I live on a daily basis."
    Dedicated followers of fashion: Congo's designer dandies
    His staged black and white shots are very much "about drama" and telling people's stories he admits.
    Over 20 of Hamese's photographs were part of the initial exhibition and the show's final line-up will take the form of a book, to be published next year. Of the exhibition, "It's not only about the clothes because I don't photograph clothes," says Hamese. "I photograph people."