Critical Texts:

Masterless People:

The Free Republic of Raphaël Barontini

by Ekow Eshun

 

In 1791, Toussaint Louverture led an army of enslaved men and women in an uprising that turned Haiti into the first Black republic in the New World. Despite the prominence of his role, Louverture was a cautious and elusive figure. He deliberately spread misinformation about his movements and was ‘renowned for his almost magical capacity to appear in the most unexpected of settings and vanish without a trace.’1 Today, Louverture lives on in legend and myth as much as historical record. He is memorialised in paintings, poems, on currency and in Vodou belief where his image has served to represent the warrior spirit Ogoun Fer.

In Raphaël Barontini’s Toussaint Louverture’s Triumph (2021) we see him in collage, displacing Napoleon Bonaparte atop a rearing horse. The Haitian leader is one of a pantheon of rebels, monarchs and freedom fighters on show in The Night of the Purple Moon. Like Louverture, these other masterless people—those wholived beyond the reach of European dominance during slavery—reach us today through fable, memory and magic. Here we find the likes of Queen Nanny of theMaroons, the Ghanaian woman who led a guerrilla war against the British in Jamaica; Saint Maurice, a Black saint who defied the will of the Roman emperor Maximian; Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest who played a signal role in the Haitian revolution.

Hailing from across the Black Atlantic world their presence in The Night of the Purple Moon speaks of the violence of colonial rule and the traumas of the Middle Passage. But looking from one to the other we also recognise them as hybrid creatures who speak many tongues. Barontini himself is versed in the polyphonies of creolité. His family originates from Reunion Island, the French territory that lies east of the African mainland in the Indian Ocean. His paintings conjure the idea of cultural identity as unmoored, fluid and changing.

In Njinga (2021) the face of an Angolan queen comes from a colonial-era photograph taken in West Africa. The queen stands before the landscape of a Flemish painting. Her dress is imagined in the red, yellow and black colors of independent Angola. The portrait, with its blurring of time and place brings to mind the scholar Homi K. Bhabha’s notion of the ‘third space’, the post-colonial zone where old hierarchies of power and identity collapse and give rise to a ‘new area of negotiation of meaning and representation’ that is ‘interruptive, interrogative, and enunciative’ in character.2 In this new territory, the West is no longer dominant, politically or aesthetically, over the African diaspora. It is Louverture who rides Napoleon’s horse. A Zulu king who wears the armour of a European knight. In Barontini’s thrilling exercise in seeing, remembering and imagining, history’s masterless people stand at the very centre of the world.

Text commissioned for a monography of the artist, published by Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (2021)

Courtesy of the Author and the Gallery.

  1. 1  Sudir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Allen Lane, 2020.

  2. 2  Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, 2004.