Paris is home for the artist Raphaël Barontini, but today, he’s in Singapore at the Tannery Heng Long. In the city of lions, he’s found himself under the care of LVMH for its artist in residency program—Métiers d’Art. As the fifth resident of the program, he’s partaking in a long-term residency program to immerse himself in his work, and the craftsmanship of other local artisans. As a product of his time there, he’s working on an entirely new body of work, mixing painting, textile, and crocodile leather for wearable works.
Behind glass, Barontini also has solo show—“Caribbean Fantasia,” curated by Sara-Jayne Parsons for the Fort Worth Contemporary Arts and The Galleries at TCU University—that’s been postponed due to COVID-19. While visitors are unable to see it up-close, they can gaze at his photographic imagery on textiles, installations that conjure ritual, and printed fabrics from afar.
Whitewall caught up with the artist to see how his work has evolved over the years, why he’s communicating history and his hybrid culture through art, and what his residency with LVMH has included thus far.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about your creative journey leading up today.
RAPHAËL BARONTINI: I graduated from the Beaux-Arts in Paris in 2009 with a year at the Hunter College of Art in New York. Presently, I am focused on making classically inspired paintings and prints. The shift happened at the end of my scholarship, when I decided to imagine paintings in the scale of large textile installations and performances.
Painting unveiled other mediums, as my works are honing in on the historical question of representation in the classical history of art. From antiquity to the renaissance, and from the 18th century to contemporary, I have always been interested in working with an immense database of images and various representations. After conducting basic observations, it became clear people from non-western countries were almost entirely under-represented in the dominant history of art.
So, I intentionally represent and celebrate real and imaginative heroes from Africa and the Caribbean to shed light on a new history that presents new narratives and shares a counter-history. My purpose is to reveal the living creole and hybridized culture who were born in territories like the Caribbeans, Africa, and in America, after centuries of slavery and colonization. I aim to create, from this specific history, a new creole and hybridized culture emerged from the Diasporas.
WW: When we connected last year at your exhibition at SCAD, you mentioned your personal background influences your work. Can you tell us a bit about that?
RB: I grew up in a working-class suburb of Paris in a culturally diverse family between Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. My practice is a natural mirror of who I am. Everything occurs almost unconsciously. My obsession with old representations and histories of painting, carnival, collective traditions, and music were already present. When I was a child traveling with my family in Guadeloupe, I was really fascinated by history and how slavery seemed forever marked upon those insular territories.
I was roused by France and Europe’s history of violence alongside other communities around the world. The creole culture in Guadeloupe and in the Caribbean really had an impact on me, the music, the carnival, the magic, the voodoo, the literature. I started to think about how you can be African and European simultaneously, and in a very complicated way…and how this cultural hybridity can also pose a challenge to reinventing new images, new poetics and new relations between people. The Italian culture of my father also provided another anchor. When I was younger, I went on a trip with him entirely to discover the beauty of the renaissance in Toscana—from Florence to Arezzo and from Sienna to Roma.
WW: Tell us a bit about your works on flags. When did this begin? Why is this a medium you are creating on?
RB: I started to work on fabric around 2015, but that obsession for unframed pictorial pieces started after my graduation. My first series of paintings and banners, “Celebrations,” represent portraits on canvas with my new mixed media approach. This was the first series of carnival banners with fringe. My vision to make paintings that hang in the street, convocating other symbolism and other ways to imagine the possibilities of painting, stemmed from that series. Painting as a pavilion (flag), is my obsession.
Through a piece of fabric, you can develop so many meanings, both historically, collectively, and politically… I am very interested in how cultures and groups of people define themselves in relation to their flags, banners and pavilions. I have always been interested in this idea and all of the expressions which come from popular tradition and folk art. My flags are made to be activated in performances and their layers of meaning are both poetic and political. What I love most about the material quality of the flags is the freedom and beauty of movement.
WW: What are you currently exploring in your work?
RB: I continue to explore different possibilities, including creating wearable pieces that can still can be defined as a painting. There is a continuity with my work with banners and flags, which develop more fully throughout my new series. I work on apparatus pieces like capes, armours, riders chaps, flags… In my current solo exhibition “Caribbean Fantasia” at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, I created new rodeo chaps, capes and scarves for a performance worn by African-American cow-boys during the opening of the show.
All the new pieces are being made currently in Singapore for my residency with LVMH Metiers d’Arts. All are related to my new body of work which will be a kind of Parade. The parade will convene Antique Egyptian and Middle-Age references. It will be a kind of mythical and imaginary parade with riders, knights, Black heroes and magical Afro-futuristic capes.
WW: Can you tell us a bit about your current residency with LVMH?
RB: I am the fifth resident of the program led by LVMH Métiers d’Art, who invite one artist per year in a factory owned by the company. It is a long-term residency where I am completely immersed in specific craftsmanship of the local artisans. I was sent to Singapore for six months in the Heng-Long leather tannery (the best company worldwide who work with crocodilian leather).
They provide skins for the LVMH brands and more. I had the time to discover a lot of new techniques and started to work on this specific material. I am now creating a completely new body of work, where I mix painting, textile and crocodile leather in apparatus wearable artworks. This series of new pieces will be on view at the end of 2020 in Paris, in addition to a catalogue which will launch at the end of 2020.
WW: What does being involved with an organization like LVHM mean to you as an artist?
RB: I have been interested in fashion for quite some time, which is a part of the reason I create wearable artworks. While I was a student, I had the chance to be a secret witness of the haute couture fashion weeks, which took place in my school at The Beaux-Art in Paris. It is an honor for me to be supported by LVMH and to have access to their savoir-faire and resources in their factories is exciting.
I work with incredible means of production in Singapore and the project has also brought me to new territories. The variety of skills and advanced technologies/ resources at the factory offer endless possibility, options I would not normally have with my networks. It is a real “carte blanche.”
WW: How are you doing amid COVID-19? What are you working on? What’s an average day in the studio like?
RB: I was recently confined as Singapore endured a second wave of cases during the month of March. I had to leave my studio at the tannery and be confined in my apartment. So during this time, I am now working on “Talismanic shirts” made with leather and fabric. My apartment has turned into a sewing studio… I am planning the return to the factory in the beginning of May. A large part of my work is also digital, so I do daily work on the computer to create my compositions of capes and flags, and work on small scale paper works with ink and water-color to still have an active painting practice despite the confinement.
WW: You’re currently in Singapore. How does being based in Asia right now impact your work?
RB: I usually travel a lot between Europe, America, the Caribbean and Africa. Asia was not on my schedule to be honest. However, immersing in the South-East Asia has been a sensorial journey, that influenced my practice. The incredibly positive aspect of a residency in a foreign country is to discover a culture, a history and a specific spirit. The history of Singapore and its importance in the Silk Road is absolutely infusing my work right now. It comes back to textile. The territory of Singapore is rich in culture because you can meet a total cultural hybridization between Malaysia, China, Indonesia, India. and The Philippines. You can feel it in the languages, in the food, in everyday life.
The history of colonization was also very complicated in this part of the world and you can still feel the British, the Spanish and the Portuguese influence in the area… Like in other continents, the old European empires left some indelible traces in the region. I discovered the cultural beauty and complexity of the area thanks to the Museum of Asian Civilizations in Singapore. The museum offers an incredible and beautiful collection of pieces including porcelain, sculpture, garments, and religious pieces, all showing how this part of Asia was a space of creativity, commercial exchange and cultural hybridity.
WW: How are you staying inspired?
RB: My artistic inspiration is fed by so many different things, which helps to move forward…It requires daily work and dedication. When I am working in my studio I can’t work without music. I have the habit of listening to a lot of Jazz and Hip-Hop. It could be John Coltrane or Sun Ra, Erykah Badu, Frank Ocean or Solange…Of course also a lot of readings. I nod to Aimé Césaire, Patrick Chamoiseau, Edouard Glissant, Ernst J. Gaines, Richard Wright among others in my practice… and I cannot forget my favorite movie ever that I have seen maybe 20 times, Orfeu Negro with the gorgeous Marpessa Dawn.
Personally, one of my most important inspirations comes from my life, where I live. It could be cliché to say that. In the first weeks living in Singapore, I would be outside the whole day, walking, discovering the city and trying to catch the vitality and differences with France, my country. I found new materials that I will use for the first time from local crafts like Singaporian silk passementerie made by a 90 year old woman and other Indian decorative trimmings found in religious Hindu stores and more. Traveling inspires me most.