Text and translation by Peikko Pitkänen
Published in Finnish in Maailman kuvalehti 1/2014
Finland-based Swiss-Haitian visual artist Sasha Huber challenges racist attitudes and unravels post-colonial heritage. She believes that art can make a difference.
A dark haired woman in a velvet jacket rides in the middle of the street. The horse-hoofs clatter on the asphalt, dented cars drive by. The woman pulls up her steed in the front of a low building, dismounts and puts a yellow poster on a wall. Customers of the coffee shop next door gather around her when she starts to speak through a megaphone:
“Scientist, naturalist, glaciologist, influential racist, pioneering thinker of apartheid…”
The site is Praça Agassiz, about an hour’s drive from the city centre of Rio de Janeiro. The woman is Sasha Huber, a visual artist, who has come to tell the locals about the person who gave the square its name. Her video “Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz” represents Finland at this year’s Biennale of Sydney.
Why did you choose Agassiz as a topic?
“Agassiz lived in the 19th century but still nowadays his scientific racism has an influence on the ideas and images we have on the different races and how they are represented within contemporary visual culture. He believed in the inferiority of the blacks and mulattos”, Huber says.
“In Finland, like in many countries, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception that the darker the skin, the more trouble. Economic recession has made life difficult for immigrants and those with dark skin. Racism has increased while the indigenous population fears there are not enough jobs and welfare services for everyone.”
In 2008, Huber joined the Transatlantic Committee “De-mounting Louis Agassiz” that aimed to shed light on Agassiz’ belief system of scientific racism and its continuing legacies. In her art, Huber has commented on these racist theories in various ways. Her most famous intervention consisted of hiring a helicopter to fly to the top of a mountain in the Swiss alps named after Agassiz and renamed it after his Congolese-born slave, Renty.
“My works show the history as a process that will never become completely ready, that is always possible to be rewritten. Usually, history is a story told by those in power but not necessarily the truth. It’s just one of the many possible versions.”
The starting point of Huber’s works are topics she finds important or disturbing.
“I rather do something concrete, bring up the subjects that matter to me than be passive and helpless. Art is often symbolic but can nevertheless make a difference. As an artist I am obliged and privileged to study history, find out about it. To me making art is all about asking questions - and sometimes giving answers - what it means to be a human.”
Roots around the world
Huber, 38, has lived in Helsinki over 13 years. Love was the reason why she moved to Finland in the first place: her husband Petri Saarikko is a visual artist and the couple has a three-year-old son.
“My artistic roots are in Finland because here I started my career. But the starting point for my art is Haiti or Ayiti, “the country of the high mountains” in Taino language. That’s where my mother was born and raised.”
Huber’s grandfather, the artist Georges Remponeau, emigrated from Port-au-Prince with his family to New York City in 1965 because everyday life in the country under the dictatorship of François Duvalier had become too dangerous. Paramilitary troops tortured and killed opponents of the president and one of the victims was Huber’s grandfather’s best friend.
“My parents met in New York and later they moved to my father’s home country, Switzerland. I was born there. When I was nine, I visited Haiti for the first and only time in my childhood and youth. Instead, New York became more familiar since we often travelled there to see the family. Especially my aunt, artist and top model Jany Tomba and my grandfather Geo impressed me greatly.”
Huber has visited Haiti only twice.
“Due to political turmoil and natural disasters the country has been unstable for quite a while. Those who come for a visit might get killed or kidnapped – the latter happened to a couple of my relatives. Nevertheless, Haiti has always fascinated me. Making art on the Haitian heritage is my way to be closer to my Caribbean family.”
How to shoot a dictator
Year 2004. Huber is angry and frustrated: learning about the bloody history of Haiti has been a great shock. But then she finds a way to let off some steam.
“I started to make art by stapling. Soon I realized that it has lots in common with shooting. A semi-automatic staple gun has a trigger and it makes a loud bang. Therefore, one has to use goggles and ear mufflers.”
Things fell into place when Huber found the way to combine stapling with matching themes and visual ideas. Her master thesis exhibition Shooting Back at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki examines the past of Haiti and her own roots.
“I ‘shot’ portraits of Christopher Columbus and the Haitian dictators François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier on driftwood. They all contributed to the historical and social conditions in Haiti and made it one of the poorest countries in the world. In the process I defended Haitians in a symbolic manner by shooting about 100,000 metal staples that represent lost human lives.”
Huber has used the slow and precise technique on numerous occasions since then. She has, for instance, stapled portraits of endangered and poached animals, such as gorillas.
“I only realized afterwards that in their treatment and ultimate fate there were many parallels with the transatlantic slave trade.”
“All my works are connected. Shooting Back is like a seed that has grown into a tree. It all began as an angry reaction against the historical injustice of colonialism but nowadays my endeavour is to create understanding and dialogue. “
Over the years Huber’s creative practice has spun a variety of media. In addition to stapling it includes photography, video, performance-based interventions, installations and publications. At the moment, she is organizing IHME Re-action workshop series on cultural identity to young people. The workshop is a part of the IHME Contemporary Art Festival.
“I have found the power of collaboration. In many of my projects I have worked with researchers, actors, artists and common people.”
Huber is one of the founders and active members of the voluntarily run art space Kallio Kunsthalle in Helsinki.
“Kallio Kunsthalle has brought together people from various backgrounds. Collaboration with our next door neighbour Elokolo, a meeting point for poor and socially excluded, is a cornerstone of our approach. The starting point is to care about those around us, be they rich or poor, sick or well.”
Haiti, my love
A cloudless sky, seemingly endless plains of snow. Sasha Huber, dressed in a jumpsuit of the colours of the Haitian flag, lies down on the frozen snow-covered Baltic Sea and makes snow angels. They look like dead bodies.
On January 2010, the devastating earthquake hurled Haiti deeper into misery. The capital Port-au-Prince was almost entirely destroyed and an estimated three million people were affected by the quake.
“The filmed intervention Haiti Cherie was part of my grieving process. When I heard about the catastrophe, I felt helpless. I couldn’t help thinking incessantly how the small country would survive. Why did this have to happen to the country that was already one of the most unstable in the world?”
In 2011, Huber had a chance to travel to Haiti after 27 years. Haïti Chérie got its Haitian premiere at the Ghetto Biennale held in Port-au-Prince.
“It was great since I had dedicated the work to the Haitians. The feedback was positive but many found the pure white landscape strange. It was the first time ever they saw snow.”
“I met my relatives whom I had not seen since my childhood. Haiti had changed but as my aunt Jany said, the Haitian spirit is stronger than buildings and will survive, no matter what.”
Huber’s work will be seen in Haiti in the near future: this year she is participating in a significant international exhibition of artists with Haitian roots. The opening is at the Grand Palais in Paris in November and later the exhibition will be touring in Canada and the United States, ending up in Haiti.
“I am very happy and honoured and I am sure that my late grandfather PaGeo would be proud of me.”