COLUMBUS, PAPA DOC & BABY DOC DISCOVER FINLAND
About Shooting Back written by art historian and critic Taava Koskinen.
Published in the Finnish art magazine TAIDE, December issue: 6/2004. Translation by Mike Garner
Columbus, Papa Doc and Baby Doc discover Finland
Sasha Huber’s trio of works dealing with colonialism was ﬁrst shown in a joint exhibition at Galleria Huuto in Helsinki in the summer of 2004, and was subsequently also selected for the 110th Finnish Artists’ Exhibition in early 2005. Huber herself has quite a post-colonial background: she left the Caribbean, Haiti, at the age of six, and has never seen her mothers home island since. Her mother is from Haiti and her father from Switzerland. International diasporism is typical of Caribbean artists and intellectuals. Her grandfather, the visual artist Geo Remponeau, made a name for himself while still on Haiti, but ended up, via other Caribbean islands, France, Africa and elsewhere, in New York.
Born in 1975, Sasha Huber’s studies and work have led her from Zürich, via Italy, to Finland and the University of Art and Design Helsinki. The origins of this set of portraits lie in a search for her own roots and in Haiti’s centurieslong, exceptionally bloody history. Huber was shocked to read how the ﬁrst thing Columbus, who is gloriﬁed in the West, did on ‘discovering’ Haiti was to kill 3–4 million Arawak Indians. The same pattern of death recurred in the later dictatorships. Huber decided she had to vent her feelings of powerlessness and rage somehow, and she found an excellent way to do this. The young artist decided to make portraits of Christopher Columbus and of Haiti’s two worst dictators of the 20th century: Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his son Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. As the supports for her pictures she used waste or driftwood that she found near the University of Art and Design, on the shores of Helsinki’s Arabia district – this in itself a symbolic link with voyages of discovery. Her technique involved using a staple gun and staples, and when ﬁring some 80,000 staples into wood she also wore hearing protectors. She thus pinned down the former dictators, both concretely and literally.
The result is extremely interesting both visually and symbolically, and at the same time also a political statement. The staples gleaming beautifully in the light also mirror art history. In the history of portrait art, as in this case, those depicted have not always been accessible (portrait artists of former times could ﬁnd themselves having to make do with catching distant glimpses of a living ruler who refused to pose). Even though, on top of that, Huber’s Columbus has been made in another age, she has captured astonishingly well the stiffness of 15th-century Spanish portrait paintings, which was intended to evoke dignity, and bore inﬂuences from Italian and Flemish art. Spanish depictions of saints from the end of the 15th century are also ﬁlled with gold, something the staples further mirror in their own way. The aestheticism of the image evokes associations with the burnished western myth of Columbus as heroic explorer. The mode of execution also focuses our thoughts on the immense violence beneath the surface. When he sailed to the islands of the Caribbean in 1492, the ﬁrst islands Columbus came across were the Bahamas, but in that same year he also landed in Haiti, which he called Hispaniola. Thinking he had arrived in India – even though the islands lie between North and South America – he called them the Indies. Today, ethnically aware Caribbeans prefer to use the term Caribbean rather than the West Indies, since the former does not involve allusions to colonialism. The wiping out of the Arawak, or in their own language the Taino, Indians (the word means peace) living in Haiti was easy, since unlike the Caribs who inhabited some of the other islands they did not practise warfare at all. Haiti turned into a bone of contention between the colonial powers, with France taking over in the mid-18th century. West-African slaves were shipped in to work the fertile land, one of the things they brought with them being the voodoo religion, and they developed a local Creole, an amalgam of African languages and French. Ultimately, even Napoleon was powerless against slave revolts and, in 1804, Haiti became the ﬁrst Caribbean colonial nation to gain independence. Enormous differences of class and wealth founded on skin colour, nevertheless, led to continual unrest and power shifts and, in 1844, the island was divided into two parts: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the United States began to intervene with its military forces and in various puppet governments.
This went on until Sasha Huber’s next subject, Francois Duvalier, declared President in 1957, entered the scene. Duvalier’s staple portrait has some of the features of classical dictator portraits, in which the gentlemen strut around in starched suits, and Duvalier’s bow tie appears to be at quite the optimal angle. Nevertheless, to those familiar with Duvalier’s background, the portrait’s most delicious and ironic aspect is speciﬁcally its background: the staples radiating out around ‘Papa Doc’s’ head in iconic manner form a halo like those in images of saints. Originally trained as a doctor, Duvalier, who presented himself as the physician of the nation, rapidly developed into a Stalin-like dictator, whose cronies could end up being tortured to death just as easily as his opponents could. He frightened the uneducated poor by appearing in the guise of one of the Voodoo spirit-gods, or Ioa, linked with death. In his most famous propaganda picture he, nevertheless, appeared with Jesus, who, with his hand on Papa’s shoulder, says: “I HAVE CHOSEN HIM.”
As a result of his rampant kleptomania, both domestic earnings and foreign aid found their way into Papa’s pocket and, by the time of his death in 1971, Haiti had been doctored into being the poorest country in the Americas. Now Huber’s third subject, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, enters the picture. In her portrait Baby is not quite such a chubby-cheeked babyface as in some photographs, in which he evidently appears to have taken excellent care of his eating. The evenly perforated background to the portrait creates a static mood, with Baby Doc actually looking bored and lethargic – and a bit simple, which is not so far from the character descriptions that have been written about him. Baby Doc came to power as a 19 year old and like his father sought to sustain the dictatorship with the aid of his personal police force and, in addition, to establish warmer relations with the United States. But, in the end, in 1986, he was forced to ﬂee to France by a popular uprising sparked by a weakening of the army and bloody confrontations. At this point, 50% of the population of the population of over eight million were unemployed, 80% illiterate, and an estimated one third of children died before their ﬁfth birthday.
Duvalier has later criticised his successor, President Aristide, who was subsequently overthrown. “[Haiti] has gone backward by 50 years,” Duvalier said and hinted that he was planning to return to help his people “in the reconstruction”. “Some families eat every other day,” he also lamented in a television interview in the United States in 2002. In March 2004, the global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International placed him sixth on a list of the world’s most corrupt political leaders of the past two decades. Art on themes related to the Caribbean is very rarely seen in Finland, and quite little is known about the Caribbean. That makes it especially interesting to speculate on whether viewers will be able to place Sasha Huber’s works into their context. Or will they notice only their aesthetic values? If Finnish viewers lack information or are prejudiced, one contributory cause for this is certainly the media, which in Finland generally sideline news from the Caribbean. A good example is Hurricane Jeanne, which caused ﬂooding that killed some 2000 people in Haiti in the autumn of 2004. The international media, such as the BBC News World Edition on the Internet or the BBC World television channel, gave extensive coverage to these events, but here the hurricane got a few lines, a few paragraphs, or a composite news item from Reuters. The Finnish media are EU and Anglo-American led – storms on the other side of Finland’s eastern border are, of course, followed closely – and via them we move on to other parts of the world, to Iraq or Afghanistan. Then, of course, the Finnish artworld is also European and Anglo-American led. Internationalism is primarily seen as meaning Finnish artists getting on opportunity to go from here, in Europe’s northern zone, to show their work ‘in Europe’, and perhaps even in North America. Internationalism is not seen as our directing our gaze to the other peripheries, as understanding their cultures and history, or as taking an interest in the art produced in these places. “There is nothing there,” is a statement I have heard more than once from Finnish art experts when speaking about the Caribbean. (Haiti, too, has contemporary art, but contrary to the common stereotypes of the Caribbean, there are more slums there than beaches.) Multicultural young artists like Sasha Huber are extremely welcome in the current climate of Finnish art. Columbus, Papa Doc and Baby Doc are a promising display from a young artist and, at the same time, it is to be hoped that these gentlemen will at least to some extent have an arousing effect on the public.