SASHA HUBER, ZURICH, SWITZERLAND 1975–
Written by Taava Koskinen
Sasha Huber was born in 1975 in Zurich, Switzerland as the daughter of a Haitian mother and Swiss father. Her grandfather Georges Remponeau had immigrated to New York with his family ten years earlier to protect them from the tightening grip of Francois Duvalier, the dictator with the nickname ‘Papa Doc’, President of Haiti from 1957 until his death in 1971. He was followed by his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, ‘Baby Doc’, whose dictatorship continued until 1986. Huber’s family spread from the Caribbean to the United States and Europe, making Sasha Huber part of the Caribbean Diaspora by birth.
In 1996 she completed her BA in graphic design at the Zurich University of the Arts & Vocational College for Art and Design Zurich. But she was rather soon to move – via Italy, though – to Finland, to become partner and collaborator to Petri Saarikko, a Finnish artist and designer and to complete her MA in Visual Culture at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki in 2006. Huber has been showing her work in Finland and abroad both in group and solo exhibitions since 2003. She is based in Helsinki but is travelling frequently working in artists’ residencies in different parts of the world.
From early on a major incentive for Sasha Huber’s artistic work was exploring her own roots and identity in the light of colonial history. Later on this approach was broadened by making it cover wider phenomena and also postcolonial realities. Huber’s work is critical and political in a rather humane way, which at least partly must be due to the aesthetic rendering of the subject matter. Yet both the aesthetics and means of realisation of the work have undergone changes and, concluding from the investigative nature of her art, their transformation will continue. There has also been a change in her outlook on often quite shocking and in her case personally touching colonial phenomena as the early rage has transformed into more exploring, yet still critical attitude.
One of the first things Christopher Columbus, glorified in the West, did after ‘discovering’ Haiti was to kill 3–4 million Arawak Indians. Having read about this Sasha Huber was shocked and decided to create a portrait of Columbus which would also be a political commentary. She found driftwood on the shores of the Arabia district near the University of Art and Design in Helsinki and using that as a kind of canvas developed a technique of creating an image by shooting staples on the wood with a staple gun. Having literally nailed Columbus she continued shooting the Haitian dictators Papa Doc and his son Baby Doc with the same technique and materials, creating a thought-provoking, visually effective trio of works, which was first exhibited in 2004 in Helsinki.
Sasha Huber has continued using the technique combining it with colonial issues. Peter Stuyvesant (2006) is a portrait of the last Dutch seventeenth-century colonial governor of New Amsterdam, nowadays New York. Sugar (2007) was inspired by colonialism in the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados, where Huber found a piece of driftwood on the beach and thought of colonial sugar cane plantations stapling it. Trophy 1(2010) is the first in the series of portraying the journeys of the iconic Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931). He made these exploration trips to British East Africa (present-day Kenya) between 1910 and 1911 and shot animals together with his son Jorma. Huber shot a portrait of the skull of a rhino that Jorma had shot, giving the honour and trophy to the animal instead.
Silverback (2005) anticipates Sasha Huber’s more recent work, which deals with the transatlantic slave trade and racism. Silverback is a series of beautifully nuanced stapled portraits of gorillas that have a touchingly sad look in their eyes. Huber started the work driven by sympathy for the ill-treated gorillas, hunted by poachers or kept in captivity. But she later came to realise that in the treatment of the gorillas there were unavoidable parallels to the African slave trade: an agenda of cruelty driven by economic incentive.
In the book Rentyhorn (2010, edited by Sasha Huber) the German philosopher Hans Barth – nowadays working as a therapist – points out that both Adolf Hitler and the Swiss-born Harvard professor Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) were comparing other ‘races’ to monkeys. Agassiz even carefully matched certain races with certain monkeys. The racist thinking of Agassiz and Hitler is amazingly similar although the former one immigrated to the United States in 1846, made his career at the Harvard University and was Hitler’s parents’ generation. Both gentlemen thought that other races should be separated from the higher white one. Therefore the mixed races, the ‘half-breeds’ were especially dangerous because their blood was poisoned and their degenerative existence was a threat to the civilization.
Louis Agassiz, a highly respected scientist in his lifetime and even after, was a biologist, geologist, anthropologist and glaciologist. He was the first one to suggest that there has been an ice age on earth. And his fame was not limited to the earth – there is a promontory on the moon and a crater in Mars, which are named after him. But it was not until quite recently that even the Swiss had to become more conscious of the fact that he was also a very influential racist scientist. This was because of the preparations for the 200th anniversary of Agassiz’s birth in Switzerland in 2007 and an Alpine peak on the borders of the Swiss cantons Berne and Valais, named Agassizhorn.
The Swiss historian and political activist Hans Fässler took initiative the same year and founded the Transatlantic Committee ‘De-Mounting Louis Agassiz’, which Sasha Huber also became a member of. In 2008 Huber, who in Agassiz’s or Hitler’s time would also have been called a ‘half-breed’, carried out a many-dimensional artistic and political intervention. She hired a helicopter and flew to the peak of the 3946 high Agassizhorn. She was carrying a metal plaque bearing a graphic representation of the slave Renty and she fixed it to the peak for a while (legally it was not possible to leave it there). This was the first concrete step in the initiative of getting the mountain renamed “Rentyhorn” in order to honour the Congolese-born slave Renty and those who met his fate. Agassiz, who created a photographic collection of naked ‘negroes’, ordered Renty to be photographed on a South Carolina plantation. The aim was to prove the inferiority of the black race.
After the intervention an anti-racist request to rename the mountain was sent to the Swiss authorities and an international petition open for anyone to sign was put in the internet and later sent to the Swiss government. Renaming the mountain Rentyhorn was rejected by the authorities in 2010 but the anti-racist project, signed by 2700 partly very renowned people had gained international attention by then. The Transatlantic Committee is also continuing the petition because of the potential opportunity of having an unknown peak in the vicinity of Agassizhorn named Rentyhorn.
Sasha Huber transformed the intervention into a photographic and video installation, which is now in the permanent collection of Kiasma, the Finnish Museum of Contemporary art. In the summer of 2012 Huber took part in an exhibition with her Rentyhorn works in the local history museum of the canton of Grindenwald, in the Agassizhorn area. On that occasion she had the opportunity to meet Renty’s descendants who had started exploring their roots and spotted the Rentyhorn project and her in the internet. They came all the way from the United States, Connecticut to see the exhibition and to thank her and the project initiator Hans Fässler.
Sasha Huber carried on investigating Louis Agassiz in a joint exhibition and book project together with the Brazilian historian Maria Helena P.T. Machado. The exhibition (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today (2010) was held as part of the twenty-ninth Sao Paulo Biennial and contained forty photographs from Agassiz’s trips to Brazil in 1865 and 1866. This was the first time that the Harvard University’s Peabody Museum granted permission for their publication. Sasha Huber’s new photographic work was drawing on this imagery creating new angles for interpretation but a protest-like street intervention was also part of the project.
Sasha Huber’s current works range from intervention or performance to photography, installation and video (not to forget about stapling). Her works Strange fruit installation (2011) and Strange fruit bowl (2009) are based on Abel Meerpool’s (also known as Lewis Allan) poem and song about lynching, a song that was most famously performed by Billie Holiday. These pieces reveal an interesting conceptual approach, which is different in comparison with Huber’s other work. They also share some kindred spiritedness with the sculptures and installations by the Swiss-German twentieth-century surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim.
Haiti has been present in Sasha Huber’s work from the very start. The Haïti Cheríe exhibition (2011) in Helsinki was a gesture of sympathy for the victims of the December 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Voodoo Capital (2012) was in turn an exhibition curated by Sasha Huber & Petri Saarikko in ‘Kallio Kunsthalle’, a relatively new exhibition space that they run together. The work was done by adult and adolescent Haitian artists who participated in a project Huber and Saarikko carried out in Haiti.
Collaboration maybe a good key word to illustrate the way Sasha Huber works. Collaboration with her husband, collaboration with other artists, writers and researchers. Let us call it the art of investigative post-colonial collaboration.
For more information and for viewing Sasha Huber’s work:
For viewing or joining the Rentyhorn petition:
Huber, Sasha (ed.), 2010. Rentyhorn. Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki.
Huber, Sasha and Maria Helena P.T. Machado (ed.), 2010. (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Phography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today. Capacete Entretenimentos on the occasion of the 29th Sao Paulo Biennial, Sao Paulo.