The primary incentive for my artistic work has been the exploration of my Swiss-Haitian roots and identity via colonial history. This approach has broadened out considerably to include a range of histories and postcolonial realities.
As an artist my first critical reaction to history and colonialism was to make the portrait series Shooting Back (2004) depicting Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and the Haitian dictators François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1907-1971) and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1951-2014). I “shot” their portraits on discarded plywood using a compressed-air staple gun, aware of its symbolic significance as a weapon. At the end of 2014, the series was shown in the first major retrospective of 200 years of Haitian art, Haïti, in the Galerie sud-est at the Grand Palais in Paris.
In a recent exhibition, titled Shooting Stars (2014), I made over thirty portraits dedicated to victims of gunshot assassinations perpetrated for political, ethnic, ideological or economic reasons. I stapled the portraits onto massive larch wood and covered each one with leaf silver, making them reminiscent of religious icons. They included: African-American Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1925-1965); Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme (1927-1986); Iranian asylum seeker and Australian-detention-centre protester on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea Reza Barati (1990–2014); and Graduate of Normandy High School, St. Louis, USA, Michael Brown, Jr. (1996–2014). I ask the question: What would the world be like if all these people had not been killed? That is why I also decided to portray the assassination-attempt survivor Malala Yousafzai (1997-), who in 2014 became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her cause is the age-old, worldwide struggle for equality, and for children’s right to education. The portrait also pays homage to those who have accepted perpetual life-threatening danger in order to pursue their cause.
My work took a new direction in 2007, when I joined the Transatlantic Committee Demounting Louis Agassiz, initiated by the Swiss historian and political activist Hans Fässler. The Swiss-born naturalist and glaciologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was a proponent of scientific racism and a pioneering thinker of segregation and “racial hygiene”. Agassiz’s full story had mostly gone untold until then. The aim was to shed light on Agassiz’s dark history by renaming the Swiss Agassizhorn mountain Rentyhorn, in tribute to Renty – an enslaved person from the Congo, who was one of many photographed for Agassiz’s research – and other victims of racism. In 2008, I began planning my first intervention. I took a metal plaque bearing the new name to the top of the Agassizhorn and launched an international online petition. That was the start of my work with interventions, video and photography to create installations, and also books produced in collaboration with historians and researchers. Since then, I have added considerably to the growing body of work during international artist residencies.
On a residency in Aotearoa New Zealand last year, where I was one of the inaugural artists on the Te Whare Hēra International Artist Residency in Wellington, I began collaborating with members of the Ngāi Tahu, the principal Māori iwi (tribe) in the southern region of New Zealand. I was intending to make interventions at two sites named after Agassiz: the Agassiz Glacier and Agassiz Range. This collaboration resulted in the intervention KARAKIA – The Resetting Ceremony (2015), which symbolically un-named the Agassiz Glacier with a karakia (Māori blessing) offered by greenstone carver Jeff Mahuika (Kāti Māhaki, Poutini Kāi Tahu). As part of the process I also contacted officials of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, who suggested – in collaboration with Makawhio Rūnanga – supporting research on new and appropriate Māori place names for both places, as there are currently no known Ngāi Tahu names for these landmarks. The short film of this intervention has so far been selected for exhibitions and Film Festivals in Finland (Tampere Film Festival), The Netherlands (International Film Festival Rotterdam) and New Zealand (Māoriland Film Festival and Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland). I am the editor of Rentyhorn, 2010 (published by Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, which has the Rentyhorn installation in its collections) and co-editor of (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today, 2010, which was published on the occasion of the 29th São Paulo Biennial. My video Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz (2010) was shown at the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014, and, in 2015, Rentyhorn (2010) was included in the collateral exhibition Frontiers Reimagined at the 56th Venice Biennale.
In 2010, Petri Saarikko (founder and director of Kallio Kunsthalle) and I started work on Remedies, a project exploring family-based aural knowledge of traditional folk remedies, which forms part of family identities around the world. We began with performances and videos for Huskurer Remedies (2010-11) in Sweden, and continued with further versions in New Zealand, Australia and, this year, in Haiti. We produced an accompanying booklet for the show in Sweden (Huskurer Remedies, Swe/Eng, published by Labyrinth Press), and a second in New Zealand (Eng/Māori, published by Enjoy Public Art Gallery).
Helsinki, February 2016