Drawing on her Swiss-Haitian heritage, artist and researcher Sasha Huber’s work addresses complex themes of identity, memory and belonging. For Autograph’s commissioning project Amplify – Stranger in the Village: Afro European Matters. Huber created a new portrait for The Firsts, a series commemorating and redressing lost ancestral figures, particularly women from the African-diaspora, who were present in Europe. This new portrait honours the Cameroonian-Swiss pioneering political activist Tilo Frey, who campaigned for women’s rights and suffrage in Switzerland, where women were only given the vote in 1971.
Autograph’s senior curator Renée Mussai spoke with the artist about the commission, exploring broader notions of remedial care and the importance of making visible ‘forgotten’ narratives that belong to the lineage of diasporic histories in Europe.
Renée Mussai (RM): Thanks so much Sasha for working with us on this artist commission for Amplify – Stranger in the Village: Afro-European Matters. You produced several works for the project, but for this part of our conversation would you share your experience of making the portrait of Tilo Frey (1923, Maroua, Cameroon – 2008, Neuchâtel, Switzerland), and how it relates to your ongoing work commemorating pioneering figures from the African diaspora in Europe through conceptual mixed-media portraiture?
Sasha Huber (SH): Thank you so much for the invitation. I was first introduced to Autograph and Mark Sealy in 2011 when Sheyi Bankale the editor and founder of Next Level magazine about contemporary photography invited me to show my work in the magazine and the project space in London. It was my first exhibition in London and my son Basil’s very first trip abroad at just eight months of age. Sheyi arranged for me to meet with Mark, and he came to see my small exhibition. I am glad he got to know my work at an early stage and I am even more grateful that I now get to work with you in this meaningful way and be given the opportunity to expand my series The Firsts (2017 –). As a person of colour living in Finland who grew up in Switzerland, I have long been interested in researching ‘forgotten’ histories that relate to the African diaspora and especially highlighting women of colour, who have mostly been under-represented.
"The Swiss-Cameroonian politician Tilo Frey fits perfectly within the lineage of pioneering women whose stories are not often told, who have been rendered invisible for too long"
RM: I was just reminded the other day of a poignant text the American art historian Kelly Jones wrote a long time ago, about black women as ‘the other of the other’.
SH: That is exactly why I have been portraying mostly women in this series. The first portrait I made for The Firsts was of Rosa Emilia Clay in 2017. She was brought to Finland, where I have been based since 2002, by Finnish missionaries in the late 1800s and later became the first black African female to be granted Finnish citizenship in 1899. And the Swiss-Cameroonian politician Tilo Frey fits perfectly within the lineage of pioneering women whose stories are not often told, who have been rendered invisible for too long.
RM: This reminds me too of a passage I often return to in Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History¹, where he writes, ‘nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history’, and how you engage an important form of knowledge production through these portraits – visual and otherwise, especially in relation to our Afrodiasporic histories/herstories – in Europe where so much work, so much learning and unlearning, is yet to be done. I only learnt about Tilo Frey through your work [for this artist commission] and I grew up on the border to Switzerland. How is it possible that I never heard of this brilliant figure, and her advocacy for women’s rights and women’s suffrage? So firstly, I must thank you for introducing her to me, and secondly, for your continual remedial work in making visible our lost narratives. How did you first encounter Frey?
SH: I did not know about her either until 2017, when Jovita dos Santos Pinto from Switzerland who is conducting research at the intersection of history and cultural studies – and herself of African descent – wrote her thesis about the story of Tilo Frey, which she presented during the conference Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe held at the University of Tampere in Finland. From her research I learnt that Frey was among the first women elected to the Swiss Parliament in 1971 – only 51 years ago – when women in Switzerland first gained the right to vote and stand for election at federal level. During that time, she taught business classes at the École supérieure de commerce in Neuchâtel, which is the same city where Louis Agassiz was a university professor at University of Neuchâtel’s Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences, in the early 1830s. She was also the first person of colour known to be politically active in Switzerland at the time: the first Afro-Swiss member of the local government, but this was mostly forgotten until Jovita reminded us of her history.
Tilo’s Swiss father Paul was working temporarily in Cameroon when he met her mother, Fatimatou Bibabadama.² She came from the Fula peoples in Cameroon. Through Jovita’s research I learnt that her parents were never married, and when she was five years old, her father took her to Switzerland where his Swiss wife adopted her.³ Growing up must have been hard for her without the presence of her mother. After four years of working in politics she retreated from the public arena and remained unmarried and without children. At the age of 85 she chose to end her life through voluntary assisted dying on 27 June 2008.⁴ I can only assume this was because she was ill and perhaps because she had no family to take care of her. With the commemorative work that we do collectively, she will be remembered and honoured.
"[Tilo Frey] will be remembered and honoured"
RM: You mention [Louis] Agassiz. As an artist and activist you have been instrumental in changing his image from celebrated figure to perpetrator, gradually exposing him as a key architect of ‘scientific’ racism in the nineteenth century, including to communities who may not otherwise engage with his complicated legacy. Given your ongoing critical engagement with Agassiz in your wider artistic practice, and as a member of the Demounting Louis Agassiz committee, it seems particularly poignant that the Espace Louis Agassiz in Neuchâtel was renamed Espace Tilo Frey.
SH: The renaming was done to mark the tenth anniversary of Tilo’s death in June 2019 and was initiated by the University of Neuchâtel and the town authorities. It is the first public space in Switzerland to be named after a person of colour. I was very happy when the decision was made to rename the square in her honour – perhaps it was helped by the knowledge of our ongoing activism with the Démonter Louis Agassiz campaign since 2007. The renaming happened very quickly, and afterwards there was some negative publicity and pushback in the media, including from former rectors at the university who opposed the move.
RM: I am not surprised, to be honest – there is still much resistance to change, and to face racist and colonial pasts in central Europe, and black and brown voices are often not yet mobilised enough. I wonder if perhaps we can speak about collaboration. I was at a panel discussion recently in north London where the idea of radical institution making was discussed, and the importance of collaborative working and practising care together, especially among communities of colour. For the audiovisual that accompanies the commissioned portrait of Tilo Frey, you invited the Swiss-based activist, songwriter and actor Brandy Butler to produce this incredibly beautiful, almost meditative soundscape laced with melancholia.
SH: Collaboration is fundamental to my practice, as a member of the transatlantic Demounting Louis Agassiz committee as mentioned, and in general working with people who are experts in their fields, from historians to musicians and filmmakers. I recognise that I cannot do everything myself, and I find collaboration an inspiring way of working. I made the first stop-motion video of me creating the portrait of Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907) for The Firsts series during a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, with a song written by [Canadian-Haitian] singer-songwriter and musician Mélissa Laveaux. Lewis was a sculptor of mixed African-American and First Nation heritage with Haitian roots, who lived and worked for most of her life in nineteenth-century Italy, having moved there in 1866. She was one of the first black artists to establish themselves in Rome. The film was made by my partner, the artist Petri Saarikko, with whom I have collaborated on several projects and who has supported me on the production of many of my projects over the years. With regards to ‘Before the Tide’, I have known Zurich-based Brandy [Butler] for some time, and it was important to me that the song for the piece was made by a person of colour who already knew about Tilo Frey. It was a great honour that she agreed to participate and lend her voice and her vision to this story.
"With each staple her portrait appears almost out of nowhere"
RM: This is fascinating to me: while we witness Tilo Frey’s coming into existence through the very physical act of stapling her portrait, you are only visible as this abstracted fleeting presence, which manifests as ephemeral configurations of light and colour on screen. One could argue that Butler’s voicing is equally ambiguous: neither her nor your racial identity is evident in ‘Before the Tide’. I remember us speaking about the abstracting of your physical presence, and I am revisiting this conversation thinking about Illusions, the brilliant 1982 short film by Julie Dash about passing in 1940s Hollywood: the story-within-the-story centres around a young (invisible) black female singer voicing the parts of white Hollywood screen actresses.
SH: Interesting. And yes, an important aspect of Tilo’s story is linked to notions of invisibility and nostalgia. The song written by Brandy [Butler] resonates perfectly with this mood, the sense of time passing, and people passing and remembering. The bittersweetness embedded in her story is deliberately emphasised, with me being not fully visible because the piece is about her, and I wanted to be present only in the process of creating the work. Hence you see me in the video as a kind of blurred ghost, appearing and disappearing as one frame fades into the next, and with each staple, her portrait appears almost out of nowhere.
RM: Well, you have mobilised your own body in several projects in the past, and when you do, you are usually very present, but I suppose those works were made in different contexts, as acts of reclamation and counter narrativising. I wonder, given that in your earlier staple gun portraits you were primarily portraying men, when and how did this exploration of matrilineal lineages begin? I suppose what I am referring to is a kind of remedial feminist decolonial mode of working rooted in a praxis of care, labour and kinship.
SH: Good question. I think it was in 2010 when I made a portrait of my aunt, Jany Tomba, who emigrated with her family from the dictatorship in Haiti to New York and worked with the Ford modelling agency in the 1960s as one of the early-generation black fashion models. I was fascinated and inspired by her life as a model, an artist, a mother and a grandmother – the life she led that I knew almost nothing about. I love JaNY, 2010 was very personal to me in terms of my family, but also as a great example of a micro history that I felt should be heard and remembered, especially for generations of young black women.
In terms of self-representation, the Agassiz: The Mixed Traces, 2010 – ongoing – a self-portraiture series, for example, was made during the Capacete residency in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in response to racist photographs. Here I use my own body as a creolised subject to challenge Agassiz’s belief in the inferiority of the ‘product’ of black and white unions, representing a person that in the eyes of racialists like him should not exist. I stand naked in front of natural places named after Agassiz as a way to express how race and place are intertwined and show solidarity with all the people who were forced to pose naked for someone’s camera, reproducing the visual violence of the past. I call these projects ‘reparative interventions’, reclaiming the right to construct my own narrative and disrupt the erotic inspection of my body.
"The ‘shooting’ [of the staple gun] became a stitching of wounds, a mending of colonial wounds and residues that cannot ever be healed entirely, but the engagement and acknowledgement of what happened – the making visible – is a kind of care work in itself"
RM: I hear you. Returning to Tilo Frey, I have been looking at her images online, and the black-and-white photograph you used as the basis for your staple gun portrait is especially wonderful: the warmth in her gaze, perfectly coiffed hair, polka-dot scarf and pearl necklace oddly gravitating to the right. Do you know anything about the context of the photograph?
SH: Only that it is one of the official press images from 1971, the year she became the Swiss national councillor for the PRD, which was a liberal political party in Switzerland, and not long after she had been one of the first women to be elected to the cantonal Parliament of Neuchâtel in 1969. She handed over only a few files to the federal archive as a Member of Parliament.
RM: It reminds me of photographs of both my Austrian and Somali grandmothers. She looks very familiar – intimately so, like family. I am always amazed by the incredible attention to detail in your work, how you manage to place thousands of staples so carefully to make something so poignant and beautiful that speaks of value and allows us to revel in and recognise these figures. You use an industrial object and yet you create something very intricate. I suppose what I am expressing is an admiration of both your craft and your labour, and the sense of administrating care (and repair) in the making of these works. Can you speak a little about care as a kind of creative-remedial methodology in your work, calling upon our collective response-abilities?
SH: I have developed this particular technique of working with a compressed air staple gun for projects that are primarily concerned with the politics of memory and belonging, while also being deeply aware of its symbolic significance as a weapon. In 2004, when I first started making portraits comprised of metal staples, I was working very intuitively, from a space of feeling, and to make sense both of the place we are in and the place we are from. Over time, the ‘shooting’ became a stitching of wounds, a mending of colonial wounds and residues that cannot ever be healed entirely, but the engagement and acknowledgement of what happened – the making visible – is a kind of care work in itself: hence I started to call those artworks ‘pain things’. The first staple gun portraits were made after I realised that I could use the technique to portray people who were responsible for the troubles in Haiti, which affected my family directly and my ability to visit my ancestral ‘home’. So, for me, it was a way of ‘shooting back’, in reflection of my Haitian roots, and also in defence, a gesture wherein each staple would represent a lost life. I later applied the process in a range of different projects.
RM: …including when you made the portrait of James Baldwin in the Swiss village where he wrote ‘Stranger in the Village’ in 1953?
SH: Yes, I portrayed Baldwin in 2017 directly onto the window shutter of the exterior façade of the chalet where he lived periodically in Leukerbad in the Swiss Alps between 1951 and 1953 to work on his first novel Go Tell it on the Mountain. I noticed that his presence there was not officially visible anywhere. It is important to me that the work is outside and accessible to the public, where the staples will rust and weather over time. But before I started the work and after I got the ok to do it from the Bittel family who owned the house, I contacted the James Baldwin Estate in New York to inform them about my idea. They acknowledged my idea and put forward no objections to my initiative.
"The Firsts has been a way of learning about and connecting not only with Afrodiasporic ancestral presences, but also with peers, as has taking part in building a community of allies across Europe"
RM: We both – you and I – grew up in places, in small Swiss villages and Austrian alpine towns, where this Fanonian epidermally conscripted sense of hypervisibility and invisibility amplified our formations, if you will, as artists, curators, scholars, researchers, makers, mothers.
SH: Very true. The Firsts has been a way of learning about and connecting not only with Afrodiasporic ancestral presences, but also with peers, as has taking part in building a community of allies across Europe, for instance through transatlantic conferences, where I have met amazing people such as the late Alanna Lockward (1961–2019), who started BE.BOP, the Black Europe Body Politic interdisciplinary programme, as a decolonial platform and diasporic hub for artists and intellectuals, and the Nigerian curator Bisi Silva (1962–2019), whom I met in Helsinki where she was on an international curators’ residency. Their deaths were such a huge loss to our community; they were such champions, and so brilliant in their work and in bringing people together.
RM: Two generous and committed souls whom we lost too soon. It was also Alanna Lockward who reintroduced you to us at Autograph when we hosted BE.BOP in 2018. All of this makes these Afropean remedial gestures of remembrance in your practice even more pertinent: knowing that Tilo Frey, for years largely invisible within Swiss national history, is now recognised not only by name in public spaces but soon also by image and sound gives me great hope for our visible futures. Thank you, Sasha.
SH: Yes, so true and I hope for more visible futures as well. Thank you.
¹ Benjamin, W., Arendt, H. and Zorn, H. (2015). Illuminations. London: The Bodley Head Ltd
² https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/006042/2021-10-15/, accessed 12 July 2022
³ https://www.republik.ch/2021/06/02/der-sonderbare-fall-der-tilo-frey, accessed 22July 2022
Afropean Remedial Gestures (Part I): Introducing Tilo Frey is an edited excerpt from a longer in-conversation in progress, Afropean Remedial Gestures.
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