Hypothesis for a Black
Cosmogony: Portraiture, Moments, Celebration
Cédric Fauq in conversation with Raphaël Barontini
The interview was originally recorded in French and has been translated to English
Cédric Fauq (CF): Firstly, I wanted to ask what the ambition behind The Night of the Purple Moon exhibition was? How did you approach the show? What are the different series that compose it? I have the impression you are in the continuity of multiple series and at the same time at the end of a cycle.
Raphaël Barontini (RB): For my first exhibition with a gallery in the United States, my intention was to return to the fundamentals of my pictorial practice. I imagined a gallery of historical portraits, in large formats, which form a sort of Black Pantheon, both flamboyant and cosmic, yet also resistant. The largest painting in the exhibition is an imaginary equestrian portrait of Toussaint Louverture, whose image appears on a Napoleon horse (taken from a piece of sculpture in a public space in Rennes, France). The piece, standing 2.30 by 2.50 meters large, celebrates the hero known for his insurrection and freeing of enslaved people in Haiti during the 18th century.
To enrich the new paintings, I chose to integrate textile pieces within the show to represent other aspects of my work. In particular, I installed flags that involve textile collages, a process of which I began four years ago.
There are also pieces from another series which I reworked specifically for the exhibition: the banner paintings. These are paintings on canvas decorated with fringe, rounded in shape, reminiscent of carnival pennants. The exhibition created the opportunity for me to reactivate this older series.
For flags and banner paintings, the idea is to present a painting that can be activated in space or through performance. These pieces, through the use of textile, summon other movements and universes in the viewer. The entrance into the exhibition is via a corridor of flags, alongside a sound piece by Mike Ladd [American hip hop musician from Boston, based in Paris]. The idea was to welcome visitors in a grandiose way amidst these historical and fictional characters. I envisioned the exhibition to be a nocturnal ceremony, where heroes from the past resurface here in the present.
CF: You use the term portrait gallery and the Black Pantheon. I also want to talk about Black cosmogony, which allows us to approach the subjects you choose and the origin of the images. It seems sometimes there is a correlation between the images and the subjects, sometimes not, because there are fictions and myths that erupt.
RB: The Black cosmogony I develop in my works is indeed diverse. It is made up of real personalities from the past that I want to re-emerge, but also strong myths from different cultures and periods. The set of figures must be able to fit into a temporal continuum where I link the past, present and science fiction.
For several years now, I have been working to highlight historical figures from the Caribbean and Africa who have not had the place they deserve in history, as told by the West. Yet, in the countries that have seen these characters emerge, they are well known and exemplify national pride. For the exhibition, for example, I have featured Toussaint Louverture and Dutty Boukman, important figures of the Haitian revolution and Queen Njinga, a powerful woman from Angola who questioned the presence of Portuguese settlers.
These works echo a previous series shown in Paris in 2017, for which I had presented mixed-race men from the Caribbean who in France and more specifically in Paris, had an extraordinary existence. These figures included Alexandre Dumas (the first Black general of the French army), Chevalier de Saint-Georges, called the Black Mozart (a classical composer, virtuoso violinist, a conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris, and a renowned champion fencer) or even of Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (a French painter).
Each work started with an observation ... my realization that the artists or soldiers had been forgotten from the French national novel or from the history of art. What interests me is to retrace their journeys, portray them and to celebrate them. I establish monuments for them in paintings as an attempt to write a counter-history.
In this Black and Mestizo cosmogony, there is also an emergence of mythological or more mystical figures. For example, I painted Eurydice and Black Orpheus which form a duo of connected paintings, revisiting the famous ancient Greek myth, following a passage through Rio de Janeiro, and making reference to the film “Orfeu Negro” by Marcel Camus. I also configured a medieval Saint-Maurice, characters of a Creole Royal Court, a mixture of stories, iconographic references and geographies.
CF: There is indeed a portrayal of individuals erased from history. But how do you treat the images, as sometimes you present people who have not been photographed or painted previously?
RB: Yes indeed, I create a story from scratch through a set of heterogeneous images. I do a lot of research. In short, the creation of the portrait comes from a composite collage which then becomes a narrative and pictorial assemblage. Regarding characters with a sulphurous or revolutionary history, this is an important question because most of the time there are very few images available of these forgotten heroes and heroines. This is of course not trivial.
When there are representations, they are often not very usable, or they may not be interesting. For example, a portrait of Toussaint Louverture painted by Georges de la Tour shows this paradox. It is perhaps the most famous portrait of the Haitian general, but the man who is portrayed is the model Joseph dit Le Maure, who was a Black model used by many painters of the 19th century (notably by Géricault for The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819). For the equestrian portrait in my show, I organized a photoshoot with a model whom I posed. I integrated his face via a screen print on the surface of the canvas.
For historical figures who have no representation in the history of art, I make exterior image choices to represent them in a fictional way. The images composing my figures come from images from my personal collection, and some are found archival images.
I also use a lot of past artistic works in my compositions, details of ancient sculptures, ritual objects and masks as well as paintings from the history of art. I draw these images from my own archive of photographs taken in museums.
I started compiling this archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was studying at Hunter College in New York, taken in the different collections of the museum. These museums form endless archival images for my work.
CF: So, you oscillate between historical figures, some fictional, others mythological... why is it important to operate this back and forth between different regimes of reality? What importance do you give to “historical fact”? And do you consider your work to be “restorative”?
RB: When it comes to historical figures, I always have a concern for plausibility and resemblance, but I am not in search for absolute “truth”. When I handle more imaginary figures, without a story, I may have more freedom ... the dimension of plastic invention is greater. I also have the impression, when I am working on figures that are less attached to reality, that my interests in the question of creolization, of the mixture of writings, of cultures, operate in a more experimental way, rather than when there is a duty to remember or to repair history.
CF: This question of repair I also linked to the passage from the pictorial surface to clothes, to cloaks, which one could consider as armour.
RB: Yes, it’s true, when pictorial objects come to life in public space, for me there is an intervention in reality, a celebration. In my project with the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, which imagined a monographic exhibition around the figure of Frederick Douglass, I added this performative aspect. While developing the project—an exhibition literally “in the middle of the street” and in their large outdoor windows—I had the desire to create a live celebration.
The idea of a parade came very quickly to mind, a large-scale parade. I started working with a local band, The Savannah High School Marching Band, because the Black tradition of school marching bands in the Southern United States reinforced the purpose of my exhibition tribute. I created capes, flags and banners that the marching band and dancers brought to life as an act of remembrance.
CF: I would like to discuss the construction of your works. Can you go back to the way you set up your work? The color, the background, but also on the collage elements? What are the different stages? Do you work with pre-defined ideas and shapes or are things done more intuitively?
RB: I often work on the composition of my works in Adobe Photoshop beforehand. These are digital collages from the image banks I create and research based on the pieces and exhibition projects. Sometimes on a painting I will have fifteen different compositions. I see the need for color to come from under a figure, then the basic work can begin.
For the pieces on canvas, there is preparatory work done intuitively when I start painting. As soon as I have my palette, I take different paints, different inks and put them aside. I start with the background, which can be done with a brush or spray gun.
I work a lot on the ground with dilutions. I will put water on the entire surface of the canvas, intervene with ink, and spray which add another materiality, on a chemical level. I use the airbrush more frequently to create gradients and color intensities.
Once this background is ready, I prepare my silkscreen screens for the different images that make up the portrait. I will cut out and do my preparations for the print area. I then have to remove the canvas from the stretcher, do all my prints, stretch the canvas on the stretcher. If something doesn’t suit me, I give myself the freedom to intervene in the collage again. For example, if I see that at scale 1 it doesn’t work, I take a picture of the part and try Photoshop again.
When I find a way to improve what doesn’t suit me, I go back to the paint to make changes. Even if there is a prior composition, I leave myself some freedom on the treatment of the background and the color, but also on the composition.
As for the textile pieces, whether it is flags or capes, I adopt a different work process. I work with digital printing. The background is painted on canvas, and I take a photo of this canvas. In Singapore for example, as part of my residency with LVMH Métiers d’Art (2020), I painted dozens of abstract backgrounds on fairly large format paper. With my camera, I would then capture areas that interested me pictorially and rework them in Photoshop before giving them to my printer to print on fabric.
Once the fabrics were printed, I screen printed on synthetic vinyl-type fabrics, to summon the world of carnival. I also used iridescent gold fluorescent fabrics—I have a lot of fun with the range of colors. I then glue these elements to my backdrops and machine sew them. This is a much more closed process than painting projects and offers less freedom of intervention.
CF: Continuing with the flags and the pieces that are more sculptural, I would like to ask about the source of certain materials you use. I believe I read that questions of the market occupy a special place in your work.
RB: I pile up a lot of materials. I buy my textiles and my trimmings in Paris, but also as I travel. In fact, I packed an entire suitcase when I was in Mérida, Yucatán (2021). I spent my first two days buying fabric because there were colors that I couldn’t find in France, buying big bags of sequins.
When I have the opportunity in different countries to find new materials that interest me, I harvest them. In Singapore for example, all the small elements of the pieces I have made—the silk buttons, the fasteners—are locally handmade, they are objects of artisanal know-how. There was only one store in the entire Chinatown area that sold specific items. There is a kind of pleasure in hunting for things that I cannot get in other contexts.
When I was in Bamako for the Pan African Biennial of Photography (2017), I spent an afternoon in one of the markets buying leather. I enjoy shopping for textiles and ornamentation. Sometimes it helps me straight away, and sometimes it takes several years before I use it. It’s a kind of ornamental madness that has pursued me for a long time, but which supports the purpose of my pieces.
CF: You are talking about an accumulation or assembly strategy, similar to the one implemented during carnivals.
RB: I was very inspired by the carnival in Guadeloupe. Several members of my family are musicians in carnival groups. When I was around sixteen, before entering the Beaux-Arts in Paris, I was part of a mainly West Indian carnival group. I made a lot of
music before I was a visual artist. I have a passionate relationship with carnival. When I was in residence in Haiti, I could see that the carnival costumes were made only of recovered materials, of dried plants. That’s what I love about carnival: imagining costumes and stories with very little.
Sometimes I find objects that I was able to find in the street. I remember canned objects that were supposed to be used to showcase exotic fruits at markets, and that I collected in the trash. I took pictures of the objects and then incorporated them into my compositions in Photoshop. I happened to pick up at the Saint-Denis market a boat a little over a meter long that must have belonged to a fishmonger to display his products. This recovery always takes place through photography and then screen printing. I collect the objects, I take a picture to archive them, then I integrate them.
CF: I have the impression the energy of Saint-Denis (where you grew up and where your studio is located) and in particular the relationship and the contrast that exists between the presence of the Basilica and the frenzy of the market can be found in your work. It’s something I experience daily, living there as well.
RB: Completely. The first significant series of works in my practice was a series of portraits marked by this story. The series started with an intuition as a Dionysian and as a painter. It was born from the contrast between this past medieval France and this contemporaneity of the city which changes with migration. I think at the time it was a hunch, I wasn’t necessarily theorizing it, but I was trying to capture this energy of interbreeding.
In Saint-Denis but also in cities like Marseille, there are a lot of communities, stories, things that play out in everyday life which may seem unreal to us when we manage to capture them. There is something a bit Dadaist about this type of city. When I was a student, I didn’t understand what I was doing in Fine Arts because there were very few of us from lower income neighborhoods. There was a gap between the 6th arrondissement of Paris where my school was located and my reality in Saint-Denis. I felt like I didn’t live in the same country, and that’s what interests me about the suburbs of France.
When I was at the Beaux-Arts, my work didn’t speak to many people. I felt like people didn’t understand my questions and it was painful. The gap widened after my year at Hunter College in New York where I discovered African American artists that I had never had access to in France like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden or even Kerry James Marshall. I mentioned some of these painters on my graduation diploma, no one on the jury knew them. There has always been this kind of lag.
Coming back to Saint-Denis, there is this concern to rework the history of France, to re-illuminate certain moments, to re-emerge historical figures who have been forgotten. There is a whole dimension of collective energy. Banners and flags are textile objects that have a collective dimension. A flag represents a group of thought, a political thought, a membership, etc. It is important for me to create pieces that have this form of life energy.
I am intentional with my use of color, glitter and fringes and want to make my paintings come alive and confront reality. For this reason, my new direction of work—vis-à-vis performance, costume, parade, and public space—become very important.
CF: You mention the Dadaist dimension of Saint-Denis. Dadaism and Surrealism find their origin, among other things, in the encounter between the West and African statuary and myths. I made this connection by thinking back to an exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris in 2018, “Dada Africa”. Do you claim this heritage?
RB: I have a connection with this movement. Formally, I am very sensitive to Hannah Höch’s work, who had an important impact on the “Dada Africa” 2017 exhibition.
At the same time, I pay attention to debates on the question of ownership. I don’t necessarily agree with the “controversies” and accusations of appropriation. I find it interesting that following the First World War, European artists came to seek plastic productions in Africa and Oceania as a necessity. Maybe it connected them to an essence of humanity they had lost in the war. I find it poetic to think these artists needed to take an interest in these civilizations in order to find a new ray of hope following the atrocity of war.
Moreover, the intuitive and almost unconscious dimension of Dadaism and Surrealism influence my work. When I glean and mix images, and work on my compositions, I let go of part of my control. This intuitive dimension in the face of the image and the pictorial object interests me. Somewhere in the suburbs, in Saint-Denis, the multicultural urban fabric offers an expanse to perform within.
Interview commissioned for a monography of the artist, published by Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (2021)
Courtesy of the Author and the Gallery.