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The Darfur Sartorialist Shines a Light on Sudanese Style

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A woman Pedro Matos photographed for his blog, the Darfur Sartorialist.
A woman Pedro Matos photographed for his blog, the Darfur Sartorialist.

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When urban planner Pedro Matos arrived in Darfur in 2009, he wasn't expecting the displaced population to have retained such a colorful and stylish way of dress. They weren't the downtrodden, dusty refugees of his imagination. They looked great.

He began to photograph the women he saw, posting them to a Facebook page that has turned into the blog, "The Darfur Sartorialist."

"It was a surprise to see a side of the story that's never been shown before," Matos told Racked in a Skype interview. "The photos help me show the other shades of grey between the black and white of stories we hear. There are realities here [other] than war, but that story is told over and over. It's a reality I want to balance with other realities."

Photo by Pedro Matos.

Matos started his photo blog in 2012 with a goal of documenting the rarely-publicized splendor and soul of Darfur. The people he encountered in refugee camps express themselves through clothing in a way Matos had never seen before and he wanted to present this fresh narrative to the rest of the world.

"Western fashion emphasizes grays, blacks, and blues; there's this tendency for us to narrow it down to that. But the fashion in Darfur has such color," he said.

Matos has since left Darfur and is now stationed in Kenya, but he still posts photos to his blog. His photos have been displayed in three different art exhibits in Portugal, and one photo was chosen as wall art at the UNHCR Nairobi regional office last month.

Photo by Pedro Matos.

The Portugal native said the mix of vibrant colors and rich patterns is what originally caught his eye. He had expected the women to dress blandly, to align with Muslim modesty rules, but astonished by how chic some were. Traditional Sudanese women clothe themselves in a toub, or a long sheet of cloth that wraps around the body and covers most of the head. All the women Matos photographed adhere to modesty rules but use color and patterns to convey their style.

In addition to the multicolored toubs, Matos said he was impressed at how some of the women mixed in fashion influences from around the world. Some women had adopted the abaya, a traditional tunic worn in the Middle Eastern, and others had even included denim skirts and Chanel knockoffs as part of the impact of Western culture and Egyptian soap operas.

A Darfur native wearing a "Chanel" belt. Photo by Pedro Matos.

Aside from the fact that most people's knowledge of Darfur is limited to the conflict, Matos said the West tends to compartmentalize all of Africa together, when there is so much diversity when it comes to the fashion of the region.

"We get one single story, but there is so much diversity," he said. "There are Muslims and Christians and as Westerners, we really lack the radiance underneath it all. These societies are as diverse as ours and my photos don't show the tragedy we associate them with."


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