In August 2008, Sasha Huber landed a helicopter near the summit of the Agassizhorn in Switzerland. She carried a metal plaque, which she hammered into the ice and symbolically renamed Rentyhorn Mountain in honor of a Congolese slave, Renty Taylor, who spent most of his life in captivity on a plantation in the US state of South Carolina. “As an artist,” says Huber, “I wanted to investigate Switzerland’s involvement in the slave trade because nobody taught us this story.”
The previous year, Huber had joined a committee of activists, historians and artists involved in a campaign titled Demounting Louis Agassiz. Their goal was to remove the name of the eminent 19th-century Swiss geologist and glaciologist not only from the mountain, but also from the many places around the world that honor him. As such, their actions anticipated the widespread questioning of historical monuments, sites and statues that accompanied the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In 2015, Huber found that a statue of Agassiz at Stanford University had been turned upside down during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She then created three protest posters based on photos of the toppled statue to address police brutality against black people and to call for the removal of statues honoring those associated with racism.
Huber was invited to the Demounting Louis Agassiz campaign committee by left-wing Swiss activist and historian Hans Fässler, who was the first to break the silence on Agassiz’s lesser-known role as a leading exponent of 19th-century scholarly racism. A creationist, Agassiz believed that God intentionally created black people as an inferior species, a view he adamantly expressed on several speaking tours of America. He also advocated racial segregation and called for urgent legislation to “at all costs” prevent the reproduction of “half-breeds,” which he believed would dilute the purity of the white race. His dislike of people of color, expressed both in his personal correspondence and in his public appearances, bordered on a kind of mania.
“A lot of people will say that he was just a product of his time,” says Huber, who has Swiss-Haitian roots. “But even through [those] Standards, he was extreme. Many of the things he said about race were repeated a century later by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. And yet Agassiz named around 80 places around the world after him. He even named sites on the Moon and Mars after him. When I found out about him, I felt like I had to do more as an artist. Placing the plaque on his mountain and creating a visual record of the action was a starting point. Somehow it made the possibility even more real actually be renamed.”
As a new exhibition at London’s Autograph Gallery makes clear, Agassiz has played a large part in Huber’s creative imagination ever since. Entitled You Name It, the exhibition features photographs, films, texts, performances and historical images, distilling 15 years of her attempt to heal the wounds of colonialism by embracing the legacy of a scientist still highly regarded in Switzerland.
The exceptions are two new pieces specially commissioned for the Autograph Show, one of which was created in memory of Khadija Saye, a London-born photographer of Gambian descent who died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Huber used a digital print of one of Saye’s tintype self-portraits – the originals, which were created during a workshop at Autograph, were destroyed in the flames. By printing it on fire-burned wood and recreating her dress with staples, Huber achieved an effect akin to an inflated photographic negative. “Although I didn’t know Khadija, I was very shocked when she died,” says Huber. “I felt like I’d like to remember her through a portrait.”
The exhibition features a video of her descent by helicopter to the summit of the Agissizhorn to place the memorial plaque in Renty’s honor, as well as a selection of the letters she sent to the mayors of the two Swiss cantons and three municipalities bordering Berg. “All mayors have to say yes for the mountain to be renamed,” she says. “But only one responded and said he needed to know more about the campaign.”
The exhibition also includes Huber’s portraits of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia from their latest series Tailoring Freedom. These are based on “slave daguerreotypes” commissioned by Agassiz in 1850 and taken by a photographer named JT Zealy. The originals were donated to the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnography at Harvard University by Agassiz’s son in recognition of his father’s time there as a professor and founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Renty and Delia were among several people selected by Agassiz for an anthropological study and posed nude in front of Zealy’s camera. In the original daguerreotypes, they are, in Huber’s words, “disrobed, dehumanized and stripped of their dignity.” In response, she reproduced these portraits, printed them on wood, and “dressed” them in what appears to be lace plaster but are actually intricately patterned metal stitching that she painstakingly created with an air-stapling stapler. “It feels like a gun and actually sounds like a gun,” she says. “So in that sense, it’s very charged.”
Huber first used the stitching process to create work that helped her deal with her own Haitian ancestry. “I saw it as a kind of flashback into history. I wanted to connect with people whose voices have been silenced by colonialism. For me, stapling became like stitching up colonial wounds.”
Despite the implied violence of the process, her reimagined portraits of Renty and Delia are finely conceived and incredibly resonant acts of reclamation and restoration. Renty wears a suit inspired by a famous portrait of Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and social reformer who became the most photographed American of the 19th century. Delia is “dressed” in homage to Harriet Tubman, who like Douglass was born into slavery before becoming a leading abolitionist and fearless anti-slavery activist. “In a way,” Huber says of the resulting portraits, “her clothing becomes her armour.”
Huber’s work is full of meaning and allusion, both contemporary and historical, and the catalog that accompanies the exhibition includes haunting essays by academic heavyweights such as Paul Gilroy and Ariella Azoulay. Yet, as evidenced by the documentation that is an integral part of her practice, Huber is an artist whose interventions are essentially political rather than conceptual—they are undertaken with the hope of sparking real change.
So far, however, the Demounting Louis Agassiz campaign has not resulted in the mountain being renamed. But Tamara Lanier, Renty’s great-great-granddaughter, after hearing about it, traveled from the US to Switzerland with her daughters to meet the artist. Huber then gave the portraits of Renty and Delia to the Lanier family.
In 2017, Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for ownership of the original daguerreotypes, which were recorded without the subject’s consent. In June of that year, a Massachusetts court ruled against her, but also concluded that Harvard’s continued use and reproduction of the images could be viewed as “reckless infliction of emotional distress,” allowing Lanier to file a civil suit against Harvard.
Thus the posthumous fates of the eminent scientist and the enslaved father and daughter—whom Agassiz regarded as mere objects of his pseudoscientific curiosity—remain inextricably intertwined, just as their respective narratives remain unfinished. In Huber’s complex, challenging art, however, an abiding sense of restorative justice prevails.