Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz (2010) is an intervention in both place and time. Presented at the Art Gallery of NSW, the short video work depicts Sasha Huber’s performance centred on the historical legacy of Louis Agassiz.
Agassiz was a prominent nineteenth-century natural scientist, who, along with pivotal fossil research, promulgated the contentious theory of separate creation – namely, that the various races of humankind did not evolve from a single point but are in fact separate species. He advocated racial segregation based on what he saw as a natural inequality of the races and used the so-called differences between European whites and African blacks to prove the superiority of the white race.
As its title suggests, Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz is an artistic offering of deeper knowledge. Almost 150 years after Agassiz led an expedition to Brazil in 1865, Huber followed, to investigate three sites that still bear his name. It is telling that none of the locals knew who Agassiz was or why their square is named after him. Huber’s action invites the people of Rio de Janeiro and viewers alike to contemplate the gaps, biases and falsities in our accepted versions of historical events.
Born in Zurich to a Swiss father and Haitian mother, Sasha Huber aligns herself with the Caribbean Diaspora. Her dual European and Haitian heritage forms the starting point for an art practice encompassing video, photography, drawing and performance interventions. Huber examines how these unique influences have shaped her own personal and artistic trajectory, while also exploring a wider historical and postcolonial reality.
Huber’s early artworks display an explicit criticism of colonialism as it has historically taken place. For the series ‘Shooting Back – Reflections on Haitian Roots’ (2004), the artist created portraits of Christopher Columbus and Haitian dictators François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier by using millions of staples and a staple gun. As a form of embodied political commentary, Huber literally shot the staples into pieces of driftwood. Huber’s grandfather had left Haiti with his family to escape the peril of Duvalier.
As Huber’s practice has progressed, her own views have broadened to consider the wider influence of colonisation in various cultures. She now looks to her art practice as an attempt to promote understanding and to encourage discussions about these issues. Much of Huber’s recent work has been informed by her joining the transatlantic committee De-mounting Louis Agassiz, an organisation founded by the Swiss historian and political activist Hans Fässler to draw attention to the inherent racism employed by Agassiz.
For the work Rentyhorn (2008), Huber flew to the peak of the Agassizhorn Mountain in the Swiss Alps, symbolically renaming the mountain Rentyhorn in honour of a slave whom Agassiz had photographed for his research. A petition to officially rename the mountain followed, which, despite being rejected by the authorities, has had a lasting influence as an intervention by raising awareness of the legacy of colonialism, historically ingrained in place names that we seldom question.
Huber holds a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design from Zurich University of the Arts and a Masters in Visual Culture from the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Her work has been included in international exhibitions including ‘Transatlantic Interventions’, Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg (2012); ‘Transatlantic Passages: Agassiz, Haiti and Africa in the Works of Sasha Huber’, Botkyrka Konsthall, Tumba (2011); ‘I love JaNY’, Kunsthalle Helsinki Studio (2010); and ‘Rentyhorn’, Hutto Gallery, Helsinki (2008). Huber was co-editor of (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today on the occasion of the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010).