Questioning Louis Agassiz’s Repository of Racist Imagery in Sasha Huber’s WorkSunday, November 4th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates
by Suzana Milevska for (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, yesterday and Today, August 2010, São Paulo, Brazil.
The visual culture research project (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Bodies, and Science, Yesterday and Today offers a very unique interdisciplinary pursuit of the origins of racist assumptions and ponders on the influence of racist representations in the formation of visual culture and media. The book itself embraces the complex entanglement of the results of the scholarly research and academic articles by Maria Helena P. T. Machado, John M. Monteiro, Flávio dos Santos Gomes, the activist campaign initiated by Hans Fässler, the text by Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko that addresses the collaborative and militant structure of the project and the outcomes of Sasha Huber’s artistic research project and performative photographs. All contributors to this project explored the use of photographic images for establishing what today is called “scientific racism”. Therefore the book and the art project bring forward the results of a rigorous look at the processes, means and methods that enabled something as artificial and man-made as racism to be still perceived as both “natural” and “scientifically confirmed” and thus to remain traceable even long after any science would accept to argue for any grounded theory of radical racial differences.
The assumption that the repository of photographic representations played an important role in the racist image-scape is supported by arguments stemming from the fields and methods of historical, anthropological, and visual culture research that emerge in each of the several substantial academic contributions by historians, anthropologists, visual culture theorists, curators, etc. Finally Sasha Huber’s artistic intervention complements and unravels the performative strength of the academic look at the history of racism, colonial hegemony, slavery, biopolitics, the problematic distinction between “pure” and “mixed” race, fear of miscegenation and the history of photography addressed in this book. The interest in linking and delinking all these fields, which is shared by all the contributors, led Huber to expand her own project far beyond the usual critical outreach of an art work and the academic knowledge of the artist. Moreover, the whole project continues to engage in socio-political interventionism and activism to which hopefully this volume will also contribute.
The artist’s attempt to contest and combat the long-term effects and perseverance of racism started with the comprehensive research and persistent activist adventure on which she already embarked with her interdisciplinary research and social intervention Rentyhorn (2008). This project was triggered by the campaign De-mounting Agassiz (Démonter Louis Agassiz) that was initiated by historian Hans Fässler as one of the first attempts to challenge the celebrated personality of the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in his homeland and originally was the most influential researcher for the development of Sasha Huber’s recent artistic concepts.1 In his detailed overview of Agassiz’s contribution to the tragic legacy of inequality, racism and slavery, included in this book under the title “What’s in a Name? Louis Agassiz, his mountain and the politics of remembrance”, Fässler very precisely contextualizes the work of Louis Agassiz as central to the whole debate on public memory and remembrance as the remaining traces of racism in the visual memory. By including different cases of similar insensitivity to the issue of everyday presence and circulation of racist messages of different kinds and provenience he warns us that the name issue, even though arbitrary, has to do with politics and the readiness of powerful political bodies to admit and correct the mistakes from the past, the biggest one being this of celebrating racism.
Sasha Huber followed up the already existing initiative to change the name of the well-known peak with a proposal to call it “Rentyhorn”, after the name of the Congolese slave. This proposal was distributed to many institutions and relevant individuals (such as Kofi Annan) in the form of a petition, which was signed and backed by more than 2500 people on the website www.rentyhorn.ch. This particular name proposition was triggered by the fact that a daguerreotype photograph of Renty was commissioned by Agassiz in order to serve as proof of his beliefs that there was an unbridgeable difference between Africans and people with white skin. Renty’s portrait belongs to the long tradition of photographic representation of the “inferior Other” and served as an image that was supposed to illustrate and embody Agassiz’s theory that blacks were inferior to whites. Over time, it became a monument to the manipulative power of the scientific implantation of various meanings to images. The simple frontal portrait photograph stood for everything that appalled Agassiz, particularly the radical difference that in his view derived from the simple genetic parallelism of different origins and thus lends itself to a scientific justification of slavery. Because of the burden of human racism and all this excess of meaning, one would think that we would all rather erase than celebrate the name of the peak. In Sasha Huber’s eyes, keeping the name Agassizhorn functions as a metaphor of the human mistrust of the existence of difference without hierarchies and therefore it should be changed.
At the end of August 2008 Sasha Huber actually recorded her helicopter flight over the Agassizhorn when she successfully landed on the peak and put a plaque on it in memory of the slave Renty. In the video, Canton Bern’s tallest mountain, the Finsteraarhorn, and particularly its peak Agassizhorn, looks like just another mountain peak: there is nothing special about this high, cold and snowy-white peak at 3953 meters. Only when Sasha Huber had chosen this particular peak to be the location of her very simple but difficult to organize action, it became obvious that the peak had stood for very long as more than just a peak. It stood there as an allegory of the failure of the human race to come to terms with its own shortcomings.
The artist’s small act to stress the urgent need to acknowledge racism’s existence and to radically break with its grand narrative could have meant a big step for humanity, had the decision of renaming of Agassizhorn been made by the Swiss Government. It was not before September 9, 2007, that the Swiss Federal Council officially acknowledged Agassiz’s “racist thinking” but still declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit.2 This moment marks the missed opportunity and moreover the ultimate failure of the Western democratic system to recognize the great potential: the potential that lies in the eventual execution of such a performative act by a simple renaming of Agassizhorn that could signify abolishing the legacy of Agassiz’s open advocacy of racism and thus help revert the hypocrisy underlying racism in Europe today. Regrettably, “scientific racism” proved more powerful than democracy. Thus both the renaming campaign and the Rentyhorn project needed a different kind of follow-up, a kind of return to researching the ways in which racism became so powerfully embedded in human history and visual perception.
Actually, what intrigued Sasha Huber the most and ultimately led her to join the campaign, to embark on the realization of her last two projects, and finally to accept the collaboration on this book was that Agassiz’s reputation remained intact long after the assumptions of his theory had been proved wrong and long after human rights movements and the belief in the urgency of abolition of all forms of slavery became widespread. Far from any idealist view that art could change all this overnight and would force conservative governments to act by bringing to transnational politics a clear political message that any celebration of racist views will be under scrutiny, this project rather sets in motion the articulation of a very simple but obviously urgent question: what is so powerful about racism that allows it still to persist in society through visual culture and other by-products of outdated scientific racism?
In the Rentyhorn project and book, Sasha Huber announced the main tone of the dispute very directly, by installing the plaque with the proposed name Rentyhorn on the mountain peak and by actively engaging in the campaign for renaming of the Swiss mountain Agassizhorn. In her more recent project, she gets involved in a more general academic discussion that questions Agassiz’s unbiased trust in the use of the photographic medium as a scientific research tool.
Sasha Huber and the other contributors to this book question Agassiz’s responsibility for establishing the genre of scientific racism based on the arbitrary classification of photographs of “others”, among other methods used. For example, in the text “Traces of Agassiz on Brazilian Races: The Formation of a Photographic Collection” Maria Helena P. T. Machado establishes the genealogy and trajectory of Agassiz’s collection of photographs consisting of around two hundred photographs. She states that these photographs had been commissioned and executed by different photographers: Joseph T. Zealy, Augusto Stahl and Walter Hunnewell. Consciously or unaware, they all collaborated on the development of Agassiz’s clearly racist visual anthropology project through their somatological and phrenological representations that could easily function as justification of apartheid, white supremacy and eugenics. Machado is profoundly engaged with Agassiz’s visual and photography-based research methods and offers a new critical perspective while including comprehensive background analysis of the original context in which the photographs were commissioned, created and perceived. The deconstructive approach of Maria Helena P. T. Machado stresses the fact that most of the referred photographs often prove quite the opposite thesis of Agassiz’s own assumptions. John M. Monteiro in his “Mr. Hunnewell’s Black Hands” complements Machado’s text by focusing on the photographs taken by Walter Hunnewell, a Harvard student and volunteer who accompanied Agassiz on the Thayer Expedition in 1865. Monteiro rigorously compares Hunnewell’s photographs with the earlier ones taken by the professional and established photographer Augusto Stahl and clarifies the reasons for their inconsistency and for the overall process of deterioration of Agassiz’s scientific methodology, which in his view happened due to a lack of scrutiny and skills of the superficially trained photographer. This was perhaps the most “fortunate” failure that revealed the accidental and unexpected representation of truth about the photographed population: that these repositories of images spoke rather about mestiços and hybridity than about clear-cut differentiations and distinctions.
However, because this collection has not been published or otherwise exposed to a wider audience, these images remained known only to the experts in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where most of the photographs were silently kept until only recently. It seems as if everybody knowing about them was shy to admit that this collection provides a very important documentation of the way racism entered science through the visual and photographic staging of racial difference. Therefore the art project and staged photographic performance by Sasha Huber can be read as an attempt to enable the disentanglement of the suppressed memory and to unleash the visual past regardless of its unpleasant content as a kind of reminder of its very profane sources, perhaps resting in Agassiz’s romantic belief in the scientific power of technology and of the new medium of photography.
Flávio dos Santos Gomes’s text, “Agassiz and the ‘Pure Race’: Africans in the City on the Atlantic”, brings forth an overview of the diversity of Rio de Janeiro’s population in the period of Agassiz’s expedition, which at the same time appears as one of the main counterarguments to Agassiz’s quest for distinctions and purity of races and racial types. While reading this careful and complex anthropological grid one becomes aware of an extremely relevant question, namely one about the perception of the photographed subjects. Gomes concludes his text with an unexpected and exciting observation, that Agassiz’s collection is not only about the racialized and Orientalized gaze of Western natural science and its prominent and celebrated representative, but it is also about the Africans who stared back. Their perception, he emphasizes, was a part of their own empowering process of transformation and of gaining awareness of the potentiality and mobility of the urban environment that they inhabited, in contrast to what Agassiz would have expected from them: purity and stability of racial types.
Sasha Huber picks up exactly on this interweaving of perception, representation and the construction of subjectivity. Throughout their text “Louis who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz”, Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko not only present the history of Sasha Huber’s art project in (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Bodies, and Science, Yesterday and Today, but they also map the network of societal and academic relations involving extraordinarily committed persons. Throughout their text it becomes clear that although the collaborators to this publication have different cultural and academic origins, they all share one and the same mission: to reveal the hidden pattern of the human mind that established and maintained the concept of hierarchical difference among people based only on the different colour of their skin.
Overwriting the historic mistakes of humankind is an important mission and it can use different methods, shapes and actions. Sasha Huber once used the renaming procedure as a mnemonic tool wherein the new name was supposed to open the way for new meanings and beliefs. This time she stages a photograph and inserts her own body in the cave-like formation of giant rocks called “Furnas de Agassiz”. Her image thus becomes a part of the images discussed in this publication: a “supplement” to the Agassiz photographic collection as if she wanted to “put herself” as an event in some kind of inventory of a potentially anti-utopian history.3 Huber’s latest project actually raises the argument that we could easily imagine a history or a future where all of us could be the surveyed “others” and could be slaves as a function of any “exposed” difference from the pre-established norm. Only by deconstructing the past and the politics of selective memory can one hope to establish different evaluation criteria for the celebration one’s name.
- 1- Agassiz was a scientist that became renowned for his achievements in different scientific fields such as geology, paleontology and glaciology. His notorious advocacy of polygenism (a belief that races came from separate origins and therefore were endowed with unequal attributes) added to his fame (particularly in the USA where he moved in 1846). His ideological views inevitably contributed to the strengthening of the racist ideology, slavery and apartheid although he claimed abolitionist political views.
- 2- ”Louis Agassiz vom Sockel holen und dem Sklaven Renty die Würde zurückgeben”. Die Bundesversammlung – Das Schweizer Parlament (2007-09-14), Accessed 10 January 2009.
- 3 Here I refer to Hélène Cixous’s memorable statement “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement”, in Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,”  in Feminism: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1997, p. 347.