LANDSCAPE, VISIBILITY & MEMORY IN THE WORK OF SASHA HUBER
By Janice Cheddie for ARC Magazine - Contemporary Caribbean Visual Art & Culture, issue 6, September 2012.
Sasha Huber is a visual artist of Swiss-Haitian heritage, born in Zurich, Switzerland, and currently living in Helsinki, Finland. Huber’s creative practice spans a variety of media, which include stapling, installation, video, photography, and performance-based interventions and publications. Huber is the granddaughter of the Haitian illustrator, artist, educator and co-founder of the influential Centre d’Art in Port au Prince in 1941, Geo Remponeau. She positions her artistic practice within the wider context of the Haitian and Caribbean diasporas. Haiti remains a constant reference point in Huber’s work and recently she returned to Haiti with a series of mobile drawing workshops presented as part of the Ghetto Biennale in Haiti in 2011. About her first visit since childhood, she says:
I wanted to go back to Haiti all my life, but because of the family pressure over health and security risks (two of my family members have been kidnapped in the past), I never returned until now. Some of these consequences inspired me to create the ‘Shooting Back’ project originally.
Now finally, 27 years after my first visit, I got the opportunity to return to Haiti to meet my local family within The 2nd Ghetto Biennale art context. Our project ‘message in a bottle’ deals with the wishes and needs of the Haitian people, which were rendered visible as a starting point for further inquiry.
Trained initially as a designer, Huber completed her crossover into fine art-based practice when she started her M.A. in Visual Culture at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki in 2004. During her period there, Huber utilized the creative space of the Masters programme to interrogate the relationship between her Haitian heritage and her aesthetic practice. Since graduating, Huber’s creative and critical reflection has moved from explorations of Haitian history and heritage to include wider examinations of the role history has played in constructing the meaning of place, difference and visibility – often through investigations into the hidden meanings within concealed geographical landscapes. In this article I will discuss how these issues are played out within a number of Huber’s works.
Huber’s initial public artistic and analytical reflection on her Haitian heritage came out in the production of her thesis show, and has gone on to be one of her seminal pieces, ‘Shooting Back Series – Reflections on Haitian Roots’ (2004). This series of portraits – drawing upon aspects of Haitian history – are creative reflections on the current state of Haiti in the modern world. In these highly crafted and subtle portraits, Huber has used thousands of metal staples to create images of the explorer Christopher Columbus, and the Haitian dictators François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. The staples give the portraits a metallic quality, similar to the effect present in western religious Icon paintings. In her selection of staples as a creative tool, Huber uses the metal quality of the pin to symbolize the violence and destruction rendered on the landscape and people of Haiti. Huber has brought visually to the surface the violence often concealed within the images of these men. She has stated that each of the staples represents one of the lives lost through the actions of these men. Her use of an everyday commodity, with its primary purpose being that of joining two elements together, has transformed the portraits from symbols of status and prestige to visible reminders of the human cost of the power on display. Huber’s ‘Shooting Back Series’ transforms the staple into a memorial for the millions of lives lost during the colonial conquest of the Caribbean, and the suppression of the Haitian people under the dictatorships of the Duvaliers.
In ‘Shooting Back’, the use of the staple gun to produce the works represents the intense physicality of production. Hammering the staples into wood was a cathartic experience for Huber, allowing the artist to physically engage with her sense of outrage at the historical injustices committed against the Haitian people. The sound of the staple gun adds to the symbolic quality of these portraits, emphasizing the violent nature of these injustices. In these portraits, ‘shooting back’ can be seen as having a double meaning – conjuring up the physical act of returning fire at the source of domination, and the notion that the enslaved and the indigenous people are capable of occupying a space of resistance against the oppression enacted upon them, within the creative space of visual art production.
Rentyhorn – Renaming the Mountain
The theme of bringing into public view the violent acts hidden within the traces of historical memory emerges once again through Huber’s various interventions into the impact and legacy of the Swiss-born Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873), a scientist, pioneer and believer in nineteenth century ‘scientific racism’. Huber’s first artistic intervention was part of the 2008 ‘De-mounting Louis Agassiz’ campaign, which seeks to rename the Swiss mountain Agassizhorn, named after Louis Agassiz. The campaign was initiated by the Swiss writer, historian and activist, Hans Fässler, who asserted that the renaming of the Agassizhorn in Agassiz’s home country would be seen “as a strong Swiss signal against racism.”
Huber first came into contact with Fässler through his research into the role of Switzerland in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. As part of her intervention, Sasha Huber created an on-line petition, www.rentyhorn.ch, as a vehicle to raise awareness about the campaign. The proposal to rename ‘Agassizhorn’ to ‘Rentyhorn’ was distributed to many institutions and relevant individuals, including the former head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who subsequently wrote a letter of support to Huber and the campaign. Huber contributed further to the existing ‘De-mounting Louis Agassiz’ campaign by proposing that the renaming should reflect upon the historical legacy of Agassiz’s work and its continuing resonance within contemporary visual culture. Furthermore, Huber asserted that this renaming should make visible the lives affected by Agassiz’s beliefs. The name of the enslaved African known as ‘Renty’, who had been the subject of early experiments in photography – known as the daguerreotype – was chosen. During the campaign Huber stated that “Keeping the name Agassizhorn functions as a metaphor of the human mistrust of the existence of difference without hierarchies and therefore it should be changed.”
In the surviving photographic image of Renty, he appears stripped naked, a symbol of Agassiz’s power and ability to reduce Renty to an object to be inspected and displayed. This photograph of Renty is commonly used within teachings and discussions of the history of photography, and thus maintains a contemporary significance. The campaign to rename the mountain reminds us that Renty’s image was commissioned by Agassiz to illustrate his belief in the racial inferiority of the enslaved African. In proposing the name of ‘Rentyhorn’, the campaign re-inserts into cultural history this often un-named African. Huber’s artistic practice has used this image as a tool to comment on the role photography had in the construction and documentation of what is perceived to be the racial ‘other’ through the visualization of external differences – skin colour, hair and facial features – between human beings. These issues are explored in greater depth within the publication of (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today edited by Sasha Huber with Maria Helena P. T. Machado in 2010 as part of Huber’s presentation at the 2010 Sao Paulo Biennial.
Drawing upon the premise that there needed to be an image of Renty on the mountain, Huber devised a daring, visually arresting and logistically complex action. Huber’s intervention consisted of hiring a helicopter to fly to the top of Canton Bern’s tallest mountain, Agassizhorn, and film her journey. For the project, Huber had made a plaque with an image of Renty. The plaque proclaimed that the ‘De- mounting Louis Agassiz’ campaign: “...denies Agassiz his mountain and renames it Rentyhorn, in honor of Renty and the Men and Women who suffered similar fates.”
Fässler, said in recognition of the significance of Huber’s contribution to the campaign, “Art had come to the rescue of politics,” energizing the project and giving it new direction and momentum.
Huber’s ‘Rentyhorn’ intervention reworks the act of remembering the enslaved from a passive act to an active process of the renegotiation and renaming of public space – a decolonization of the mountain and as an act of denial of the theories of scientific racism professed by Agassiz. This slow process of decolonization began in September of 2007, and though the Swiss Federal Council officially acknowledged Agassiz’s ‘racist thinking’, Switzerland continues to deny the request to rename the mountain peak.
The replacing of Agassiz’s name with Renty’s at this site of great beauty suggests both an acknowledgment of past mistakes and the recognition of the possibilities of history and culture. The ‘Rentyhorn’ campaign, within its process of renaming, has a transforming effect. The act of publicly naming Renty moves him from being an anonymous subject of slavery into the space of full humanity. Furthermore, within the history of trans-Atlantic slavery, the act of renaming carries with it added meaning – the denial of the enslaved African’s name and their subsequent European renaming was a powerful marker of the system of total domination the slave masters held over the enslaved. Thus the renaming, through the democratic act of petitioning and campaigning, represents part of the process of decolonialization, the space and the belief system of scientific racism and its continuing legacies.
In 2008 an exhibition of the video documentation of the work ‘Rentyhorn’ was presented in Finland. In this, Huber exhibited her drawing of Renty in traditional African dress and a staple-gun portrait of Louis Agassiz, making a link between the ‘Shooting Back Series’ and the legacies of enslavement and scientific racism. By choosing to portray Renty within formal African dress, Huber has disrupted the power relationship established by Agassiz and re-imagines a past for Renty outside the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Huber’s decision to represent Renty in the formalized modes of traditional portraiture disrupts the idea of individual portraits as space retained for the rich and powerful.
Louis Who? The process of Rewriting and Repositioning
After the ‘Rentyhorn’ intervention, Huber’s work continued to engage with the legacy of Louis Agassiz’s work in Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz, with a particular emphasis on the way racial difference and otherness led to the development of photography as a documentary and visual medium. The project Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz is a multi-layered collaboration with theorists and writers, and includes Huber’s visual exploration into the historical context and meaning of Agassiz’s photographs of the black and indigenous populations of Brazil. Here Huber is directly concerned with the use of photography as a research tool for nineteenth-century categories of difference.
Through research, Huber and her partner Petri Sarrikko discovered three sites in Brazil that had been named after Agassiz. Huber settled upon using within her exhibition a series of self-portraits within one of the sites, a large cave named Furnas de Agassiz. Once a destination for tourists, it is used by the followers of the African-based religion Candomblé. As a site for religious ceremonies, the cave is littered with the ceremonial remnants of this surviving African religion, carried into Brazil via the slaves. The belief system blended with indigenous and European religions in Brazil to become a creolized cultural form; a religion forged within the processes of the legacies of the trans- Atlantic slavery as acts of creative and spiritual resistance.
In Huber’s self-portraits taken in Furnas de Agassiz, Agassiz: the mixed traces series. Somatological Triptych of Sasha Huber (2010), the images of her naked body claims the space of the creolized subject, and as the creator of the photographs, challenges Agassiz’s belief in the inferiority of the product of black and white unions. Through her body Huber claims the space of representation and the right to construct narratives that challenge and question the assumptions of Agassiz’s theories. Her intense stare and the full-length long shots disrupt the erotic inspection of the body represented in Agassiz’s images. Huber’s self-representation of herself within the cave suggests a new kind of renaming and unveiling, one which positions the creolized subject as part of the process of human history.
Huber’s nude self-representation within the formal structures of landscape photography brings to the fore the connections between nature and culture, making a direct connection between the remnants of the Candomblé religion and a dialogue with the legacy of Agassiz. Creating an uneasy tension within her work, both Huber’s body and the Candomblé religion are products of the blending and transforming that have taken place in the Caribbean and South American landscapes. The intensity and aloofness of Huber’s gaze and posture evokes the rites and symbols of the powerful female priests and the spiritual and physical possession of the followers of Candomblé, whilst also evoking a refusal to be positioned as an object within the landscape.
Huber’s gender adds another layer and disruption to the image; in most Candomblé houses, especially the larger ones, the head of the family is a woman – a manifestation of female spiritual power and creativity. The two acts – Huber’s self-portraits and the presence of the Candomblé sect, represent a physical and spiritual rededication of the site, undercutting the meaning and power of the forgotten name of Louis Agassiz. Through the physical and cultural reclaiming of the land by the practitioners of the Candomblé religion, we are witnessing the Furnas de Agassiz site moving from a symbol of male power and prestige to a site of female spiritual and creative power. Even though the formal name of the cave retains the signature of Agassiz, Furnas de Agassiz has lost its purity, becoming a manifestation of the cross- cultural intermingling he feared.
ARC Magazine - Contemporary Caribbean Visual Art & Culture, issue 6, September 2012. Special thank you to Holly Bynoe, Editor-In-Chief!