On Sasha Huber

Words by Madeleine Bazil

Welcome to Confluences, a column on art, kinship and life.

Rebirth, our current theme, connotes growth - but also revival, reconfiguring and even reparations. It’s this latter definition that Swiss-Haitian artist Sasha Huber’s work brings to my mind. Huber’s retrospective exhibition, called YOU NAME IT, is on view now through April at London’s Autograph and looks back at more than a decade of her prolific career. Co-curated by Bindi Vora, Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy, the exhibition asks viewers to consider “what actions it might take to repair the inherited traumas of history” - rebirth, indeed.

Huber’s exploration of this question is the organising principle of her body of work, throughout which she explores issues of colonialism, historical reparations, and the role of art to work through and heal these wounds. Much of her recent practice engages with the campaign Demounting Louis Agassiz, a movement to redress the legacy of Swiss-born scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), whose notable contributions to the fields of glaciology, palaeontology and geology are marred by his scientific racism and experiments with eugenics. Over 80 landmarks are named for Agassiz - both on Earth and on the Moon and Mars. This includes a mountain in the Swiss Alps that Huber has proposed renaming “Rentyhorn,” after Renty Taylor, an enslaved Congolese man who - along with his daughter Delia Taylor - was the unwilling subject of nude photographs that Agassiz commissioned on a South Carolina, USA, plantation in 1850.

Images - their making, their distribution, and their legacies - are deeply political, never neutral.

Agassiz’s goal with these photographs, the British Journal of Photography explains, was "to further the theory of polygenesis – that different races were descended from different origins, and therefore inferior. These daguerreotypes are thought to be the first known images of enslaved people.” In her work “Tailoring Freedom,” a keystone of the exhibition, Huber has printed these daguerreotype images onto wood: restoring a part of the Taylors’ dignity and humanity by dressing them. Their outfits, inspired by the clothing worn by American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, are constructed from staples. Huber explains that using a staple gun to do this serves as a further act of historical reclamation. This stapling technique, as Hyperallergic points out, has been part of the artist’s practice since 2004 as a method of speaking about unequal power dynamics: “shooting back” into history, so to speak. With her stapled portraits, Huber says, she “started to portray people who were negatively affected by colonialism, people whose histories have been muted.”

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Huber presents a series of self-portraits within various natural landscapes, an act of reclamation against Agassiz’s use of both landscape photography - and photographic technology itself - towards white supremacy. “As a creolized person,” Huber points out, “in [Agassiz’s] eyes I shouldn’t exist… I’m reclaiming the body on behalf of my ancestors, taking the agency back and putting myself in a landscape that was exposed and imposed by him.” In this renewed, reclaimed connection to ancestry and landscape as resistance to colonialism, I am reminded of Issue #13’s Re-Indigenising the Land, in which Celine Murillo writes about how the Indigenous Manobo youth of Bukidnon, in the Philippines, are leading the way in preserving their land and culture. “In a world blighted by isolationist and extractive tendencies,” says Murillo, “the Manobo youth of Salumayag are a shining example of how collective action and nature-based solutions can nurture our environments and our culture.”

Images - their making, their distribution, and their legacies - are deeply political, never neutral. Theorist Ariella Azoulay writes that “we should deny, denounce, renounce, disown the exclusive rights to guard what could not have come become property without the brutal exclusion of others — documents, art, photographs, knowledge.” Huber’s artwork is, at its core, the work of cultural history, taking to account problematic chapters of the past. And it is also the work of looking forward: drawing new legacies and narratives. The exhibition text sums up this cycle of renewal beautifully: “Huber’s artworks present a vision for the ways we can tenderly, and with care, refute the damage already inflicted by history. In challenging the terms by which we remember, the artist asks who and what we memorialise, and more importantly, how we do so.”

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Words by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

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