In June, a Massachusetts court finally ruled on Tamara Lanier’s pioneering lawsuit against Harvard University to repatriate daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors, Renty and Delia Taylor. The photographs were commissioned by Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), the famous Swiss-born naturalist who became an advocate for ethnic cleansing and racial segregation after moving to the USA, as part of a eugenics campaign when he was director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology & Ethnology. In addition to his role as museum director, Agassiz was one of the 19th century’s most influential “scientific racists” whose pseudoscientific notions have generally been overlooked in light of his many contributions to the fields of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, and glaciology. No one awaited the court ruling with more interest than Swiss-Haitian-Finnish artist Sasha Huber, who has spent the last fifteen years trying to undo her countryman’s problematic legacy. As part of her “Demounting Louis Agassiz” campaign, Huber, who lives and works in Finland, stages what she calls “reparative interventions” in places named after Agassiz — an ambitious undertaking, considering the seven animals and over 80 landmarks bearing his name on Earth, the Moon, and Mars.
Huber’s involvement in Agassiz’s legacy started in 2007 when she was invited to join the De-Mounting Louis Agassiz Committee, founded by Swiss activist historian Hans Fässler. The Committee was created in response to 200th anniversary celebrations of Agassiz’s birth ignoring his role as a proponent of white supremacy. “At the beginning,” Huber told Hyperallergic, “I didn’t know this will last so long, you know?” As her contribution to the Committee’s efforts to change the name of the Swiss Alps’ Agassizhorn peak, Huber devised her first intervention. The 2008 video “Rentyhorn” depicts the artist summiting the 12,946-foot-high peak by helicopter and installing a metal plaque portraying Renty Taylor. Upon hearing about the campaign, which also included a website and letters to Swiss mayors and UNESCO, descendant Lanier brought her daughters to Switzerland to meet Huber.
In 2010 Huber, whose mother is Haitian and father is Swiss, began “Agassiz: The Mixed Traces Series” (2010–ongoing) — comprised of haunting self-portraits in which she photographs three views of herself against natural features bearing Agassiz’s name. Agassiz strongly opposed miscegenation, Huber pointed out, “so, as a creolized person, in his eyes I shouldn’t exist.” This interruption of the racist archive reclaims both the landscape and photography, a new technology Agassiz hoped would prove his theories of white superiority. In 1850 he selected seven enslaved individuals — Alfred, Fassena and Jem, Jack and his daughter Drana, Renty and his daughter Delia — who were then stripped, strapped to iron braces, and photographed naked. By photographing herself nude, Huber explained, “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.” She has enacted this in seven different countries, including Brazil, where Agassiz led an expedition in 1865 in hopes of disproving Darwin’s theory of evolution, again through photographing native people.
In 2015, while completing an artist residency in earthquake-prone Aotearoa (the ancestral Māori name for New Zealand), Huber learned that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had toppled a statue of Agassiz at Stanford University. She created “Agassiz Down Under” (2015), a three-poster series using photographs of the upturned sculpture with its head lodged in the ground, both to commemorate recent victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence, and to advocate for the physical removal of monuments representing upside-down ideologies. One poster memorialized the nine Black worshippers massacred in a Charleston church in 2015 and included text from Fässler drawing a clear line from the shooter’s racist ideology to Agassiz’s activities in “that very same Charleston,” where after sourcing Renty and the other six from a South Carolina slave labor camp, he gave public lectures about Blacks and whites belonging to “separate zoological provinces.”
Huber also traveled to Agassiz Glacier on Te Waipounamu (the Māori name for New Zealand’s South Island) to organize a symbolic unnaming ceremony with a karakia, or incantation, offered by a Māori carver called “Karakia — The Resetting Ceremony” (2015). A few years later, Huber’s video “Mother Throat” (2017–19) documented a similar unnaming ceremony at Lac Agassiz in the Algonquin First Nation in collaboration with an Inuit throat-singing duo.
In 2019 Huber’s partner Petri Saarikko flew to Boston to film “Pictures of a Repatriation” (2019), a press conference held by Agassiz’s American family. Following the New York Times’s coverage of Lanier’s lawsuit, 43 descendants wrote and signed an open letter to Harvard in solidarity with Lanier, requesting that the daguerreotypes be returned. “But none of his Swiss family [signed their names],” Huber pointed out. “They were not interested at all. His legacy is so important for them.”
The Harvard lawsuit, which has rocked the art and museum worlds with its challenge to institutions, coincides with “Demounting Louis Agassiz” coming full circle for Huber. Huber’s major solo exhibition, “YOU NAME IT” (2008–2021), brings together photography, video, performance, installations, and staple portraiture from the artist’s 15-year campaign in an internationally touring exhibition organized by The Power Plant in Toronto, where the exhibition took place from February to May 2022, and Autograph APB in London, with plans to travel to Switzerland, the US, and the Turku Art Museum in Finland. The exhibition has inspired a book of the same name, which will include interviews, responses to Huber’s work and campaign from international scholars, curators and critics, and Ariella Azoulay’s analysis of Lanier’s court case.
Her latest pieces signal both a return to Renty portraiture and a new direction in technique. “In 2008, I made a drawing of Renty, who was stolen from Congo, in Congolese dress,” she explained, “but it was an ink drawing. Now it’s the first time I marry staples and photographs.” Huber developed her signature stapling technique, which she calls pain-things, in 2004 with the “Shooting Back Series,” using an air-pressured staple gun like a symbolic weapon to speak about unequal power dynamics. Eventually she decided to stop portraying people like Agassiz, “because the end result is a beautiful portrait, you know? So I completely shifted, and I started to portray people who were negatively affected by colonialism, people whose histories have been muted.”
“Tailoring Freedom” (2021), created for The Power Plant, is an act of historical repair. Huber printed the Renty and Delia daguerreotypes on wood and created textured, shimmering garments out of staples inspired by those worn by abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The tens of thousands of staples resemble metallic thread, as Huber put it, “both stitching the colonial wound and making it visible. The wounds are still there.” She noted that Lanier “was amazed at how different they looked and said I was able to take them out of their circumstances.” Though it remains to see what Harvard will do, Huber has gifted the portraits to Lanier. “It’s important to think about where art goes. At the end of the tour, it goes to her. It’s a work I cannot sell.”
Editor’s Note, 8/24/2022, 5:50pm EDT: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the Massachusetts court ruling on Tamara Lanier’s lawsuit. This has been corrected.