Artist's quest to honour hidden heroes of fight against French slavery

Slavery has been a prominent theme in contemporary US and British art for many years, but French institutions have been slower to foreground the issue. Now the Panthéon monument in Paris has given carte blanche to artist Raphaël Barontini to bring lesser-known figures of emancipation into the light.

Freedom fighters have been at the core of Raphaël Barontini's work for many years. But to have his pieces displayed in the Panthéon, a hallowed space reserved for France's national heroes, is deeply meaningful.

Barontini is acutely aware that his exhibition “We Could be Heroes” is not only an opportunity to pay tribute to lesser-known figures involved in the fight against slavery, but also a historic step forward in terms of publicly addressing these themes.

The Panthéon, whose dome looms over the capital's fifth district, is where France's great intellectuals and statespeople are buried – notably Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie and Jean Moulin.

Suspended under its monumental ceilings, Barontini’s giant silkscreen-printed banners flutter gently, inviting visitors to look up.

The pastel colours and graphic motifs evoke scenes from France's history of slavery – the trans-Atlantic crossing, sugar plantations, battles for freedom.

Nearby, contrasting with the heavy stone statues and massive columns, colourful shield-shaped flags stand in a line.

When he began exploring slavery and its eventual abolition as an arts student nearly 15 years ago, Barontini admits he was in uncharted waters. At the time, few other contemporary artists in France had dared to take on such an explosive subject.

“A certain part of the art world wasn’t ready to accept it” and nor was the general public, he told RFI.

Read more on RFI English

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