Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2024
Florence Alexis Oser la liberté–Figures des combats contre l'esclavage Exh. cat. Paris: Heritage Editions, 2024. 182 pp. GPB40.00
Pantheon Center for National Monuments November 9, 2023–February 11, 2024

Oser La Liberté, translated as “Dare Freedom,” is an extraordinary exhibition on the centuries-long fight against slavery in France and its colonies. Sponsored by the Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN) and the Fondation pour la mémoire de l’esclavage, and organized by Florence Alexis, a curator, activist, and daughter of Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis, it is installed in the crypt of Paris’s Panthéon, a building that was conceived as a church but transformed during the Revolution into a “temple of liberty” and a burial ground for “great men.” The most extraordinary thing about Oser La Liberté may be the fact that it exists at all. As Alexis notes in the catalog and in a television interview, opposition to slavery is an “elusive” topic in France, one that is largely absent in history books (and, one might add, in national monuments, even those like the Panthéon that are avowedly dedicated to freedom).

The show, together with a related installation on the Panthéon’s main level by contemporary artist Raphäel Barontini, redresses this silence by portraying known and unknown historical figures who took matters into their own hands to combat oppression. Their story is complemented by images, objects, and texts related to the history of enslavement in France—among them the 1685 manuscript of the Code Noir, which regulated slavery in the American colonies (the geographical focus of the exhibition); and a pair of eighteenth-century silver sugar casters depicting enslaved laborers on loan from the Louvre—as well as texts and quotes by Enlightenment figures like Voltaire (who is buried nearby) and Diderot that underscore the horrors of the slave trade. Although the exhibition arguably leans too much into a rose-colored vision of the Panthéon and the “universal” values it enshrines as complementing those of the show, for the most part it asks hard questions about the nature and costs of freedom, while acknowledging that the global struggle against slavery and racism is far from finished.

Oser La Liberté is divided into four sections. The first, entitled “The slave trade, a first globalization,” begins with the fifteenth-century development of European colonial empires that relied on enslaved African labor and that led to the decimation, domination, and resistance of indigenous populations. This history is evoked by two objects made in the early 1990s: a pedagogical model of the French slave ship L’Aurore, which transported 476 Africans to the colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1784 at the height of France’s involvement in the triangular trade; and a mixed-media painting by Haitian artist Barbara Prézeau depicting the arrest of Taíno Queen Anacoana, who was executed by Spanish forces in 1503. This section shows how, from the late seventeenth century, France became increasingly invested in its American colonies, whose products such as sugar, coffee, and indigo graced the tables and adorned the bodies of the metropolitan white elite, some of whom are seen here in early modern portraits (presented mostly in facsimile) alongside enslaved African attendants.

The second section, “Marronage, Enlightenment and Revolution (1750–1802),” traces the outbreak of revolution in Saint-Domingue in 1791 to earlier forms of enslaved insurrection, including running away or marronage. It puts these actions by largely anonymous individuals in conversation with well-known calls to end slavery by French Revolutionary figures like the Marquis de Condorcet and the Abbé Grégoire, who are also buried in the Panthéon, and by the radical feminist and abolitionist Olympe de Gouges. The objects in this section exemplify one of the challenges of the exhibition, namely the limits of the archive when it comes to matters like slavery, in which sources overwhelmingly privilege elite white actors or are produced by and for colonial regimes. For example, whereas most of the white men and woman mentioned can be summoned via period portraits, there is no secure surviving likeness of Black counterparts like Louverture or Louis Delgrès, a free man of color who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe, not to mention the many thousands of unnamed enslaved individuals who fought for freedom during the Haitian Revolution. The exhibition deals with this problem by including imagined portraits of historical figures by contemporary artists like François Cauvin, a Haitian painter whose iconic profile portrait of Louverture wearing a guinea fowl as a hat (a symbol of enslaved resistance) serves as the show’s signature image. It also, somewhat less successfully, employs contemporaneous images of Black individuals such as Horace Vernet’s “Sketch of an Unknown French Soldier” to “evoke” figures like Delgrès. These stand-in portraits are primarily shown in reproduction, sometimes as part of the short didactic videos with explanatory texts in French, English, and Kreyòl that punctuate the four parts of the exhibition.

Section three, “From one abolition to another (1802–1848),” focuses on the reinstatement of slavery by Napoleon in 1802 (after it had been abolished for the first time in 1794) and the campaign to have it definitively outlawed in France, which did not happen until 1848. It features images of Panthéon denizens like Victor Schoelcher, who played a leading role in the campaign, and the mixed-race writer Alexandre Dumas, whose father had been born to an enslaved African woman in Saint-Domingue. Schoelcher’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon in 1949, but Dumas was not interred there until 2002, during a ceremony in which then-president Jacques Chirac acknowledged that racism had shaped the author’s life and legacy and that having him buried there meant “repairing an injustice.” This section also displays the infamous 1825 ordinance of France’s King Charles X, which acknowledged Haiti’s independence but demanded that the fledgling nation pay one hundred fifty million francs as reparations to its former colonizers, plunging Haiti into a “double debt” whose tragic repercussions persist today.

The show’s final section, “Against oblivion: commemorating and fighting (since 1848),” explores the ongoing legacy of enslavement—which, in its modern form, “still affects more than twenty-eight million people worldwide”—as well as efforts to preserve and repress historical memory. This section is the sparest of the four, and it consists mainly of a slide show of photographs of Black men and women who fought against racism and oppression, among them Paulette Nardal, Aimé Césaire, and Josephine Baker, who in 2021 became the first Black woman to be interred in the Panthéon. Nonetheless, it had a powerful effect of linking past and present, one that is also evident in the Barontini installation entitled We Could Be Heroes above. Whereas the underground rooms devoted to Oser La Liberté are dark, intimate, and hushed, befitting their status as a crypt, the Panthéon’s main floor is light, airy, and enormous, with towering columns and soaring classical domes. Barontini fills this staid white stone interior with large, loud, colorful textile banners portraying an “imaginary pantheon” of Black freedom fighters from the Revolutionary era like Louverture, Sanité Belaire, and Solitude, a pregnant, free woman of color who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe and was hanged in 1802. Additional textile panels reference the slave trade and events like the Battle of Vertières (which Barontini calls the “Black Waterloo”) through a collage-like ensemble of archival photographs, cut-out shapes, textures, patterns, and fragmented images of ships, weapons, and African sculptures, including one recently repatriated to Nigeria. On the day I visited, Barontini himself showed up and gave a talk about his research process and mixed, “Créole” aesthetic while wearing a backward baseball cap and puffer jacket and leaning confidently against a display of Foucault’s pendulum (an experiment intended to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation) in the monument’s central nave. Toggling between his audience’s rapt reaction, the artist’s work, and the otherwise mostly white, male vision of heroism that the Panthéon and its sculptures embody, I have to admit that the metaphor was not lost on me: the earth did seem to shift a bit.

Although the catalog and promotional texts for Oser La Liberté describe the Panthéon as a natural fit for the show, in reality these two installations underscore some of the monument’s contradictions. While the recent inclusion of the remains of Dumas and Baker make the Panthéon more inclusive, on the whole it still offers a highly selective view of freedom and resistance, notably where the Revolutionary period is concerned. It also absolves figures like Voltaire of his racism, and the Oser La Liberté installation does this too, implying he was a full-throated abolitionist when in fact he wrote at one point that Blacks were “naturally” destined to be enslaved. Some visitors will object to this lack of historical complexity and ambiguity, while others will likely bemoan its reliance on facsimiles as well as contemporary or stand-in portraits. These curatorial decisions, however, arguably make the show more accessible, especially for a generation of format-agnostic millennials whom Alexis describes as the main target audience. They also make this struggle “visible” and embodied in a way that other recent efforts by the CMN and the French government—including a proposed monument to the victims of slavery that was announced in 2018 but has stalled since—do not. Ultimately, Oser La Liberté feels like a significant if provisional step in getting the pendulum to swing in the other direction. 

Meredith Martin
Professor of Art History
New York University