CHICAGO — It took three months of failed attempts to get to the Raphaël Barontini show at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, only to discover it would close in a few days. Covid-19 delayed the exhibition’s opening date for months. Then an Illinois ordinance prohibited cross-state travel, followed by several snow storms — not to mention the general malaise that comes from 12 months in restricted confines.

Raphaël Barontini, “Creole Prince” (2020), acrylic, ink and silkscreen on canvas 86 5/8 x 61 1/8 inches

But there I was, out in the world, standing in the middle of the gallery, a 5,000 square foot space of high ceilings and wood columns. The Night of the Purple Moon, Raphaël Barontini’s first solo gallery exhibition in the US, features about 15 works. I am told by a gallery assistant that the entire show pre-sold. “Toussaint Louverture’s Triumph,” (2021), a large 98 x 90.5 inch-work, dominates with its equestrian sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte overlaid with an image of the Haitian revolutionary. Their historical fission is underscored by the marvelous irradiated green face of General Louverture, as if a high school student highlighted in marker this heroic text instead of the Western version. Barontini might apply as many as 25 layers of screenprint to achieve his textured, seductive, collage-like surfaces. He works on canvas, which gives the pictures a toothiness, enriching the merging, gliding dazzle of these composite constructions influenced by Hannah Hoch, Romare Bearden, Robert Rauschenberg, and the musician Sun Ra. 

Raphaël Barontini, “Toussaint Louverture’s Triumph” (2021), acrylic, ink and silkscreen on canvas, 98 3/8 x 90 1/2 inches

The layered mentality of the work relates intricately to its content. Barontini, who was born in 1984 in France where he still lives, interjects the power poses of Western art history with heroic Black figures from revolutionary movements in the Caribbean. His family history — which straddles geographies from Réunion Island (a French territory in the Indian Ocean) to the Caribbean, Italy, and Paris — offers a parallel compendium of influences. Barontini’s subjects may be suggestive of specific individuals such as Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest and activist, or fully fictive “creole hybrid” inventions. This may sound familiar (think Kehinde Wiley), as these historic inversion tactics now feel like a recognized trope. What makes the works enthralling, however, is their physicality, the play of screen-printed textures, the layers, confections of pattern, glowing aerosol backgrounds. The work manages to be slick and stylish while also ceremonial, with lingering traces of street pageants, military parades, or Carnival. It is especially delightful when Barontini edges an un-stretched canvas with fringe, turning a painting into a print into a banner and then again, later, into a flag as he whooshes through the visual channels of the honorific. The age-old memes of stance, parlance, fashion, and scale command respect, while co-mingled histories that still circulate on colonial breezes flutter through the exhibition. 

Raphaël Barontini, “NJinga” (2021), acrylic, ink and silkscreen on canvas, 86 5/8 x 63 inches

Smaller scale works in the show, such as “Black Centurion,” (2019), take a different tactic. Less authoritative in tone, it mixes and matches ancient Roman statuary with a ceremonial mask, a statue from Nigeria, and an ethnographic photograph to yield a stew of influences out of tersely edited, simplified shapes, beckoning a sculptural presence. All of this, Barontini’s process and his pageantry, seems to inch closer to some kind of a truthful reflection of how histories amass as conglomerations and contrasting parables that need continual sorting and ironing.

Raphaël Barontini: Night of the Purple Moon continues through March 6 at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, (437 N. Paulina Street, Chicago, IL). 

Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in Milwaukee, WI. She is especially interested in how portraits convey meaning.