ARC Magazine - Contemporary Caribbean Visual Art & Culture, issue 6, September 2012. Special thank you to Holly Bynoe, Editor-In-Chief!
Landscape, Visibility and Memory in the Work of Sasha Huber
By Janice Cheddie
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 painting, 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.
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About Rentyhorn and (T)races of Louis Agassiz project written by curator and theorist of visual culture Suzana Milevska.
Published in the book (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, yesterday and Today, August 2010, São Paulo, Brazil.
Questioning Louis Agassiz’s Repository of Racist Imagery in Sasha Huber’s Work
The visual culture research project (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Bodies, and Science, Yesterday and Today offers a very unique interdisciplinary pursuit of the origins of racist assumptions and ponders on the influence of racist representations in the formation of visual culture and media. The book itself embraces the complex entanglement of the results of the scholarly research and academic articles by Maria Helena P. T. Machado, John M. Monteiro, Flávio dos Santos Gomes, the activist campaign initiated by Hans Fässler, the text by Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko that addresses the collaborative and militant structure of the project and the outcomes of Sasha Huber’s artistic research project and performative photographs. All contributors to this project explored the use of photographic images for establishing what today is called “scientific racism”. Therefore the book and the art project bring forward the results of a rigorous look at the processes, means and methods that enabled something as artificial and man-made as racism to be still perceived as both “natural” and “scientifically confirmed” and thus to remain traceable even long after any science would accept to argue for any grounded theory of radical racial differences.
The assumption that the repository of photographic representations played an important role in the racist image-scape is supported by arguments stemming from the fields and methods of historical, anthropological, and visual culture research that emerge in each of the several substantial academic contributions by historians, anthropologists, visual culture theorists, curators, etc. Finally Sasha Huber’s artistic intervention complements and unravels the performative strength of the academic look at the history of racism, colonial hegemony, slavery, biopolitics, the problematic distinction between “pure” and “mixed” race, fear of miscegenation and the history of photography addressed in this book. The interest in linking and delinking all these fields, which is shared by all the contributors, led Huber to expand her own project far beyond the usual critical outreach of an art work and the academic knowledge of the artist. Moreover, the whole project continues to engage in socio-political interventionism and activism to which hopefully this volume will also contribute.
The artist’s attempt to contest and combat the long-term effects and perseverance of racism started with the comprehensive research and persistent activist adventure on which she already embarked with her interdisciplinary research and social intervention Rentyhorn (2008). This project was triggered by the campaign De-mounting Agassiz (Démonter Louis Agassiz) that was initiated by historian Hans Fässler as one of the first attempts to challenge the celebrated personality of the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in his homeland and originally was the most influential researcher for the development of Sasha Huber’s recent artistic concepts.1 In his detailed overview of Agassiz’s contribution to the tragic legacy of inequality, racism and slavery, included in this book under the title “What's in a Name? Louis Agassiz, his mountain and the politics of remembrance", Fässler very precisely contextualizes the work of Louis Agassiz as central to the whole debate on public memory and remembrance as the remaining traces of racism in the visual memory. By including different cases of similar insensitivity to the issue of everyday presence and circulation of racist messages of different kinds and provenience he warns us that the name issue, even though arbitrary, has to do with politics and the readiness of powerful political bodies to admit and correct the mistakes from the past, the biggest one being this of celebrating racism.
Sasha Huber followed up the already existing initiative to change the name of the well-known peak with a proposal to call it “Rentyhorn”, after the name of the Congolese slave. This proposal was distributed to many institutions and relevant individuals (such as Kofi Annan) in the form of a petition, which was signed and backed by more than 2500 people on the website www.rentyhorn.ch. This particular name proposition was triggered by the fact that a daguerreotype photograph of Renty was commissioned by Agassiz in order to serve as proof of his beliefs that there was an unbridgeable difference between Africans and people with white skin. Renty’s portrait belongs to the long tradition of photographic representation of the “inferior Other” and served as an image that was supposed to illustrate and embody Agassiz’s theory that blacks were inferior to whites. Over time, it became a monument to the manipulative power of the scientific implantation of various meanings to images. The simple frontal portrait photograph stood for everything that appalled Agassiz, particularly the radical difference that in his view derived from the simple genetic parallelism of different origins and thus lends itself to a scientific justification of slavery. Because of the burden of human racism and all this excess of meaning, one would think that we would all rather erase than celebrate the name of the peak. In Sasha Huber’s eyes, 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.
At the end of August 2008 Sasha Huber actually recorded her helicopter flight over the Agassizhorn when she successfully landed on the peak and put a plaque on it in memory of the slave Renty. In the video, Canton Bern’s tallest mountain, the Finsteraarhorn, and particularly its peak Agassizhorn, looks like just another mountain peak: there is nothing special about this high, cold and snowy-white peak at 3953 meters. Only when Sasha Huber had chosen this particular peak to be the location of her very simple but difficult to organize action, it became obvious that the peak had stood for very long as more than just a peak. It stood there as an allegory of the failure of the human race to come to terms with its own shortcomings.
The artist’s small act to stress the urgent need to acknowledge racism’s existence and to radically break with its grand narrative could have meant a big step for humanity, had the decision of renaming of Agassizhorn been made by the Swiss Government. It was not before September 9, 2007, that the Swiss Federal Council officially acknowledged Agassiz’s "racist thinking" but still declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit.2 This moment marks the missed opportunity and moreover the ultimate failure of the Western democratic system to recognize the great potential: the potential that lies in the eventual execution of such a performative act by a simple renaming of Agassizhorn that could signify abolishing the legacy of Agassiz’s open advocacy of racism and thus help revert the hypocrisy underlying racism in Europe today. Regrettably, “scientific racism” proved more powerful than democracy. Thus both the renaming campaign and the Rentyhorn project needed a different kind of follow-up, a kind of return to researching the ways in which racism became so powerfully embedded in human history and visual perception.
Actually, what intrigued Sasha Huber the most and ultimately led her to join the campaign, to embark on the realization of her last two projects, and finally to accept the collaboration on this book was that Agassiz’s reputation remained intact long after the assumptions of his theory had been proved wrong and long after human rights movements and the belief in the urgency of abolition of all forms of slavery became widespread. Far from any idealist view that art could change all this overnight and would force conservative governments to act by bringing to transnational politics a clear political message that any celebration of racist views will be under scrutiny, this project rather sets in motion the articulation of a very simple but obviously urgent question: what is so powerful about racism that allows it still to persist in society through visual culture and other by-products of outdated scientific racism?
In the Rentyhorn project and book, Sasha Huber announced the main tone of the dispute very directly, by installing the plaque with the proposed name Rentyhorn on the mountain peak and by actively engaging in the campaign for renaming of the Swiss mountain Agassizhorn. In her more recent project, she gets involved in a more general academic discussion that questions Agassiz’s unbiased trust in the use of the photographic medium as a scientific research tool.
Sasha Huber and the other contributors to this book question Agassiz’s responsibility for establishing the genre of scientific racism based on the arbitrary classification of photographs of “others”, among other methods used. For example, in the text “Traces of Agassiz on Brazilian Races: The Formation of a Photographic Collection” Maria Helena P. T. Machado establishes the genealogy and trajectory of Agassiz’s collection of photographs consisting of around two hundred photographs. She states that these photographs had been commissioned and executed by different photographers: Joseph T. Zealy, Augusto Stahl and Walter Hunnewell. Consciously or unaware, they all collaborated on the development of Agassiz’s clearly racist visual anthropology project through their somatological and phrenological representations that could easily function as justification of apartheid, white supremacy and eugenics. Machado is profoundly engaged with Agassiz’s visual and photography-based research methods and offers a new critical perspective while including comprehensive background analysis of the original context in which the photographs were commissioned, created and perceived. The deconstructive approach of Maria Helena P. T. Machado stresses the fact that most of the referred photographs often prove quite the opposite thesis of Agassiz’s own assumptions. John M. Monteiro in his “Mr. Hunnewell’s Black Hands” complements Machado’s text by focusing on the photographs taken by Walter Hunnewell, a Harvard student and volunteer who accompanied Agassiz on the Thayer Expedition in 1865. Monteiro rigorously compares Hunnewell’s photographs with the earlier ones taken by the professional and established photographer Augusto Stahl and clarifies the reasons for their inconsistency and for the overall process of deterioration of Agassiz’s scientific methodology, which in his view happened due to a lack of scrutiny and skills of the superficially trained photographer. This was perhaps the most “fortunate” failure that revealed the accidental and unexpected representation of truth about the photographed population: that these repositories of images spoke rather about mestiços and hybridity than about clear-cut differentiations and distinctions.
However, because this collection has not been published or otherwise exposed to a wider audience, these images remained known only to the experts in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where most of the photographs were silently kept until only recently. It seems as if everybody knowing about them was shy to admit that this collection provides a very important documentation of the way racism entered science through the visual and photographic staging of racial difference. Therefore the art project and staged photographic performance by Sasha Huber can be read as an attempt to enable the disentanglement of the suppressed memory and to unleash the visual past regardless of its unpleasant content as a kind of reminder of its very profane sources, perhaps resting in Agassiz’s romantic belief in the scientific power of technology and of the new medium of photography.
Flávio dos Santos Gomes’s text, “Agassiz and the ‘Pure Race’: Africans in the City on the Atlantic”, brings forth an overview of the diversity of Rio de Janeiro’s population in the period of Agassiz’s expedition, which at the same time appears as one of the main counterarguments to Agassiz’s quest for distinctions and purity of races and racial types. While reading this careful and complex anthropological grid one becomes aware of an extremely relevant question, namely one about the perception of the photographed subjects. Gomes concludes his text with an unexpected and exciting observation, that Agassiz’s collection is not only about the racialized and Orientalized gaze of Western natural science and its prominent and celebrated representative, but it is also about the Africans who stared back. Their perception, he emphasizes, was a part of their own empowering process of transformation and of gaining awareness of the potentiality and mobility of the urban environment that they inhabited, in contrast to what Agassiz would have expected from them: purity and stability of racial types.
Sasha Huber picks up exactly on this interweaving of perception, representation and the construction of subjectivity. Throughout their text “Louis who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz”, Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko not only present the history of Sasha Huber’s art project in (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Bodies, and Science, Yesterday and Today, but they also map the network of societal and academic relations involving extraordinarily committed persons. Throughout their text it becomes clear that although the collaborators to this publication have different cultural and academic origins, they all share one and the same mission: to reveal the hidden pattern of the human mind that established and maintained the concept of hierarchical difference among people based only on the different colour of their skin.
Overwriting the historic mistakes of humankind is an important mission and it can use different methods, shapes and actions. Sasha Huber once used the renaming procedure as a mnemonic tool wherein the new name was supposed to open the way for new meanings and beliefs. This time she stages a photograph and inserts her own body in the cave-like formation of giant rocks called “Furnas de Agassiz”. Her image thus becomes a part of the images discussed in this publication: a “supplement” to the Agassiz photographic collection as if she wanted to “put herself” as an event in some kind of inventory of a potentially anti-utopian history.3 Huber’s latest project actually raises the argument that we could easily imagine a history or a future where all of us could be the surveyed “others” and could be slaves as a function of any “exposed” difference from the pre-established norm. Only by deconstructing the past and the politics of selective memory can one hope to establish different evaluation criteria for the celebration one’s name.
1 Agassiz was a scientist that became renowned for his achievements in different scientific fields such as geology, paleontology and glaciology. His notorious advocacy of polygenism (a belief that races came from separate origins and therefore were endowed with unequal attributes) added to his fame (particularly in the USA where he moved in 1846). His ideological views inevitably contributed to the strengthening of the racist ideology, slavery and apartheid although he claimed abolitionist political views.
2 "Louis Agassiz vom Sockel holen und dem Sklaven Renty die Würde zurückgeben". Die Bundesversammlung - Das Schweizer Parlament (2007-09-14), Accessed 10 January 2009.
3 Here I refer to Hélène Cixous’s memorable statement “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement”, in Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,”  in Feminism: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1997, p. 347.
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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.