Critical Texts:

Lines of Force Occasionally Divided

by Storm Janse van Rensburg

 

The repercussions of cultures, whether in symbiosis or in conflict—in a polka, we might say, or in a laghia—in domination or liberation, opening before us an unknown forever both near and deferred, their lines of force occasionally divined, only to vanish instantly. Leaving us to imagine their interaction and shape it at the same time: to dream or to act.1

I am writing this at a moment when across the world, carnivals have been paused, marching bands retreated, and junkanoo has gone to ground. Performative traditions that speak to human resilience and hewn from resistance acts against oppressive forces, have been momentarily suspended.

The pageantry and its attendant systems of communal and related production, often informal and sporadic, are reliant on organizing schemes that are assembled and mobilized in the weeks and days before significant events—choreographies are mapped, rehearsals take shape in improvised spaces, costumes are planned and constructed, color combinations are selected, flags and banners sewn, glitter glued on, tassels pinned on, hems adjusted and the regimented uniforms molded and adapted to fit nonhomogeneous bodies for maximum collective impact. Fabrics are chosen and details added so that every movement, both sweeping waves and subtle flicks, is exaggerated, liquid in the air and catching the light, just so.

A significant part of Raphaël Barontini’s practice stems from his early involvement in carnival bands as a musician—the rich Caribbean parade traditions flowing through his artworks that directly reference the banners, flags and capes of his childhood. These objects, described by the artist as paintings, resist a passive flatness—they are charged with the latent energy of their potentiality to move, to wave, to shimmer and to

grab attention to its message or slogan. This tension, embedded in their final versions installed in the gallery, becomes an electric conceptual foundation for the layering of the imagery (and imaginaries) they hold.

Honing in on the surface of each painting, unpicking its construction, further reveals it to be built up through various forms of collage—arrived at through digital and physical processes of cutting, pasting, hand and digital printing, stitching, and painting of surfaces that are put together in dynamic and surprising ways. I want to bring your attention to these details, as it is not incidental, nor just simply the means to making an image, but because the decision making in slicing and putting back together is at the core of Barontini’s conceptual pursuit—and so is the decision to leave a visible line, seam, or welt, if you may, between visual regimes that were not intended to belong together. He deliberately disrupts iconographic hierarchies by avoiding seamlessness, and not smoothing things over.

This approach is not only limited to image per se, but also extends to the way the artist brings together different surface qualities and textures, each with its attendant connotations. I want to pause for a moment to consider Barontini’s fascination with disruption and un- seamlessness, as well as his pursuit of challenging visual regimes and by extension, its related representation of power. Through the mining of art historical references that represent Western power and hegemony, could his 11 cutups and splicing of these materials be altered into new combinations with what could be considered its antithesis? Would these actions therefore be a partial iconoclastic act? Collage implies a kind of violence—and Barontini relegates these symbols of power to props, backgrounds or formal building blocks for the staging and centering of the subjects of his images.

The generic 17th century Flemish landscapes that appear in works such as Njinga (2021) and others, harks to the idyllic, peaceful representations of nature, in contrast and contradiction to the advent of the contemporaneous unleashing of the European colonial project, which included the horrors of the global slave trade. In other works, symbolic objects that denote status, such as scepters, Napoleon’s headdress, metal armor, a rearing horse, lace collars, European court dresses, etc. provide visual clues to entrenched value systems. The elements described here forms an interlinked basis or ground for Barontini’s interest in the foregrounding of both historic and fictional figures which have been neglected and absent in the biased value chain of art history: Black Heroes.

It was because we never had grammars, nor collections of old plants. And we never knew what urban, suburban, frontier and continental were ...
A participatory consciousness, a religious rhythmics.2

But I would argue that Barontini is not engaging in a mere pastiche and collage of select elements to support his cause, but he commits to a deliberate act of cultural anthropophagy—a cannibalizing of visual tropes and symbols, processing them and producing something completely new. In part, this consumption and digestion is not an outright rejection of these visual language regimes, but an ability to radically transform, subvert and critique the value systems that is represented thereby, whilst simultaneously putting them to use for a different task: to be the supporting act for what it previously suppressed and obliterated. Barontini’s ferocious appetite to deftly extract (digest) pertinent elements to support his narratives facilitates a radical turn in the visual realm, providing his subjects with a dignity and visibility long overdue.

Barontini places his figures centrally on the image plane—a classic formal iconographic device. In this new body of work he brings attention to male and female figures from Greek mythology and mid-20th century cinema, as well as Black male and female liberation heroes, a religious figure and African royalty. Each icon is constructed from different sources, across time periods and geographical contexts, fractured elements brought together into a considered whole. The contextual reference of each fragment is specifically selected to enhance the central figuration and becomes

an actualization of a composite that also speaks to interrelation and solidarity.

In this new body of work, the film “Orfeuo Negro” [Black Orpheus] (1959) looms large as a significant leitmotif, its thematic concerns bringing together several of Barontini’s interests—in the appropriation of classical mythology set in a contemporary urban environment; the narrative driven by the pulsating energy of the Carnaval; and the centrally positioned Black characters. Directed by the French filmmaker Marcel Camus, the film featured the U.S. born actress, Marpessa Dawn in the role of Eurydice, and the Brazilian Breno Mello in the title role of Orpheus.

In the large-scale work Eurydice (2020), Barontini pays homage to Dawn—her portrait monumentalized and anchored by a classical sculptural form and completed by a fragmented idol. As someone that the artist met through shared activism, her iconic beauty appears in other works by the artist and the homage is deepened by the personal connection to his subject. The partnered work, Black Orpheus (2020) comprise various fragments including a photographic portrait of a young man, taken by Barontini, combined with the classic torso of the Greek god Apollo which according to mythology, was the only god worshipped by Orpheus towards the end of his life.

Through the invocation of historic Black, African and African diasporic figures, such as Dutty Boukman, Queen Njinga, Toussaint Louverture, King Eweka and Saint-Maurice among others, alongside iconic documents of Black life, Barontini continues to further an important conversation and critique related to race and its representation within the European art historical canon.

In one of our first engagements as artist and curator in 2018 for a commissioned project in Savannah, Georgia3, I recall Barontini on the other end of a transatlantic FaceTime conversation, informing me with much enthusiasm and detail of a very specific dream he had the night before. The dream was about the project, and that it would include a performance with a local marching band. Months later, on his site-visit to the museum and city in preparation for the site-specific commission, his trip coincided with a street festival, and we sat together for a whole morning watching local school marching bands pass by. We then met one of the local bandleaders who with his troupe became close collaborators on the project. At this special moment, I understood the intrinsic connection that Barontini makes between the objects he produces and his relation to performative traditions of the African diaspora, and a shared relational connection across a vast expanse of time and geography.

It is significant that this body of work, The Night of the Purple Moon, finds its debut in the U.S. at the apex of a highly charged socio-political moment, or what could perhaps be better described as surges of highly charged and polarized shockwaves. The mass mobilization and resistance against systemic racism and the continuous oppression of Black lives, has been tempered by an increasingly vicious manifestation of White supremacist hate groups and their troubling entry into the mainstream.

Barontini’s practice opens the possibilities for other imaginaries to enter our consciousness. Perhaps, as in Glissant’s words, when considering opposing cultural forces, the opportunity is left for us “to imagine their interaction and shape it at the same time: to dream or to act.”

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

Courtesy of the Author and the Gallery.

1 : Eduardo Glissant, Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing, The University of Michigan Press, 1996, pg. 131.

2 : Oswaldo de Andrade, Cannibal Manifesto (1928). Cited from Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 19, No. 38 (Jul. - Dec., 1991),
pg. 38-47.

3 : Raphaël Barontini, The Golden March, 2019, SCAD Museum of Art.