It was not by chance that I came across Sasha Huber. Our paths were bound to cross. I had written a book on Swiss participation in slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Papa Legba, the voodoo god of crossroads, arranged for a copy of it to get into the hands of Huber’s sister. Sasha contacted me in 2006, telling me about her Shooting Back portrait series. As I looked at the tens of thousands of staples forming the face of Papa Doc Duvalier, and thought of the seven million francs he had stolen from the Haitian people.
I met Sasha for the first time in the summer of the same year, she talked about her Haitian grandfather George Remponeau, the well-known illustrator and painter, who had contributed in the 1950s and 1960s to a style called ‘indigenism’ with works describing Haitian market scenes, landscapes, and genre painting. She told me about Zurich, where she was born, about Helsinki, where she now lived, about her work as an artist and a designer, and about Haiti, where she longed to go. I told her about St Gallen, my obscure little hometown on the railway line from Zurich to Munich.
A year later, Neuchâtel, a city in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, which, on account of its numerous links with slavery and the slave trade, might be called ‘the Liverpool of Switzerland’, commemorated the two hundredth birthday of Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807–73). An exhibition at the local museum of natural history highlighted his achievements as a founder of academic institutions, as a Swiss-American zoologist, as a researcher of fossil fish, as a champion of glaciology. The little village of Môtier, where Agassiz was born a pastor’s child, celebrated its greatest son, and the Swiss press told the story of the founding of the American National Academy of Sciences in 1863.
Of course they told the story of the Alpine peak nearly 4,000 metres above sea level on the boundary between the cantons of Berne and Valais which had been given the name of ‘Agassizhorn’ in the 1840s. But not a word was written on the fact that Agassiz had also been one of the world’s most influential racists and a pioneering thinker of apartheid.
Among Agassiz’s friends was the notorious Dr Samuel George Morton, who was then trying to prove the inferiority of the ‘black race’ by measuring the contents of skulls. Another of his friends was Dr Gibbes, a South Carolina slave owner and admirer of Morton, who offered Agassiz the unique opportunity of analyzing specimens of African slaves. Agassiz hired a photographer from Columbia, J.T. Zealy, and of his many daguerreotype slave portraits, six have survived.
One of those Congo slaves on that South Carolina plantation was called ‘Renty’, or at least that is the name by which he has survived. All of this seemed intolerable to me, and so I launched the campaign Demounting Louis Agassiz, which suggested – as a strong Swiss signal against racism – taking that mountain away from Agassiz and renaming it ‘Rentyhorn’ in honour of one of Agassiz’s victims. The campaign proved a great success during the first year. Dozens of newspaper articles appeared, scientific debates were launched, members of the Swiss Federal Parliament took up the cause, and even the Swiss government was compelled to take a stand on the question of Agassiz’s racism.
Yet in the summer of 2008 the campaign seemed to be flagging. The local authorities as well as the cantonal and federal governments had refused to have the ‘Agassizhorn’ renamed, and international pressure proved immensely difficult to build. But then, in August 2008, Sasha Huber booked a flight from Helsinki to Zurich, hired a helicopter, flew to the summit of the ‘Agassizhorn’, rammed a memorial plaque for ‘Renty’ into the snow and wrote a letter to Kofi Annan, who in his reply of 5th December expressed his appreciation and wished her ‘luck in her future endeavours’. Art had come to the rescue of politics, and the campaign was back on track, just in time to see the product of what Agassiz had considered repulsive ‘racial miscegenation’ being president of the United States of America. What’s more, Sasha gave Renty, the Congolese slave denuded by Agassiz to confront the cold eye of the ‘scientific’ camera, his dignity back by drawing him in traditional African clothing. She has my undivided admiration for that idea.