“Imagin(in)g Racial France: Three Takes and an Envoi"

by Dominique Malaquais


If France, as Nicolas Sarkozy seems to think, has an identité nationale, that identity is a function first and foremost of what he and his supporters would deny:  a centuries-old métissage that cannot be airbrushed, done away with by some manner of putative intégration.  The depth of this métissage, in terms both chronological and substantive, the sheer complexity of it all, is the subject of a portrait series by Raphaël Barontini.

Barontini (b. 1984) lives and works in St Denis.  This is where he grew up, “au sein d’une famille métisée, mélangée, avec des racines italiennes, espagnoles, sénégalaises, guadeloupéennes, bretonnes” [in a métisse, mixed family, with Italian and Spanish, Senegalese, Guadeloupean and Breton roots]. A professionally trained artist (Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris), thanks to residencies and prizes he has traveled widely.  This, however, is where he wants to be:  “St Denis, c’est ma terre.  J’ai besoin de cette ville pour créer” [St Denis is my land.  I need this city to create]. [1]  What he intends to create, he says, is an alternate lens:  one that will not glaze over the layering of histories that constitutes the France in which he lives.  His gaze is a distinctive, articulately postcolonial one that claims the mix-mash-mesh of his hometown not as an exception, a matter of peripheries, but as a rule, integral to the identity of the country as a whole.[2]  The result is a thickly textured mix that bridges sticker art and classical traditions of European portraiture, advertisement graphics, tagging and a far-ranging knowledge of art history, with Poussin, Duval-Carrié and Mexican votive images, Warhol, Reynolds, Banksy and Grace Jones album covers referenced in a single breath.

The works seen here – all mixed media on canvas and many nearly two meters wide – are from a series titled “Portraits de cour” [“Court Portraits”].  They tell an alternative history of France, in which simple tales and unbroken lines of sight are shown for what they are:  myths, easy (and, because of this, dangerous) stories.  Carnavalesque undertones suffuse the work, a distorted funhouse feel that points to the dystopia at the heart of France’s identité nationale imaginary.

[1] “Raphaël Barontini Biographie,”
[2] Email exchange with the author, August 6, 2010.

© Dominique Malaquais
Senior Researcher
Centre d'Etudes des Mondes Africains (CEMAf)


Public Culture Magazine // Special Issue: "Racial France" (Duke University Press), Winter 2011