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The Politics of Memory and Belonging in Sasha Huber’s Action Portraits

by Jareh Das

POSTED: 10 November 2022

Writer and curator Jareh Das reflects on acts of memorialisation and remembrance as performed in Sasha Huber’s new artist commissions The Firsts – Tilo Frey and Khadija Saye – You Are Missed

For Autograph’s commissioning project Amplify — Stranger in the Village: Afro European Matters, artist Sasha Huber created two new commemorative portraits using her signature staple gun technique to densely embellish black-painted acoustic board with thousands of staples, each piercing and punctuating the surface.

Here, Jareh Das reflects on the new commissions and considers how the politics of memory and belonging bring forth colonial residues that still impact in the present.

Two new commemorative portraits by Swiss-Haitian artist Sasha Huber pay homage to the late Gambian-British artist Khadija Saye (1992–2017) and Swiss-Cameroonian politician Tilo Frey (1923–2008). Saye, an artist, activist and carer in her early twenties, died alongside her mother in the Grenfell Tower Fire of 2017 in west London, one of the UK’s deadliest fires and widely regarded as an atrocity due to the controversies that emerged relating to political and corporate responsibility.

Saye, who was only 24 at the time of her death and just emerging as an artist, is remembered for her first comprehensive body of work exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice the year she passed: a series of powerful tintype portraits exploring themes of spirituality, trauma and the body through important symbols rooted in Gambian traditional practices. Frey began her extensive career as an educator and in 1969 was the first woman to be elected to the cantonal parliament of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, followed by her appointment into the Swiss Parliament in 1971, making her the first woman of colour ever to be elected.

Khadija Saye - You Are Missed (2021-22)

Alongside the large-scale conceptual staple-gun portraits in homage to Saye and Frey, Huber has also created a short film entitled The Firsts: Tilo Frey (2022), a moving-image collage showing different stages of creating Frey’s portrait, abstracting the artist’s figure as she works on the canvas.

Over the years, Huber has worked with complex themes centred on both excavating and bringing to the forefront the multiplicities of colonial residues that still impact the present, in a variety of different contexts. Huber initially grounded her works in her Afro-European roots as evident, for instance, in the long-term project from 2007, Demounting Louis Agassiz, and in her role as a member of the Demounting Committee, which is concerned with redressing the little-known history of the Swiss-born naturalist/glaciologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), who contributed to ‘scientific racism’ by promoting both segregation and racial hygiene. Her work has since expanded to include broad histories and varying conditions of postcoloniality, resulting in an expansive body of portraits reframing – and commemorating – key historical figures. In her serial work Shooting Stars (2014), Huber resurrects over 30 victims of political, racial and ideological assassinations including African-American civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr (1925–1965) and more recently Michael Brown, Jr (1996–2014), whose killing sparked protests across the United States and whose name is sadly one of many now synonymous with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement globally.

"there is a strong resonance with the silhouette portrait, the mid-eighteenth-century technique pre-dating the advent of photography in which profiles are cut from black card to record a person’s appearance"

While Saye’s portrait, which is titled Khadija Saye – You Are Missed, stands alone – Frey’s picture forms part of the artist’s ongoing series, The Firsts (2017–present), which highlights the fact that there has been little progress historically in recognising the contributions made by African diasporic figures, particularly women. Conversely, the expression and continuous reference to ‘first black person’ across many fields of practices and locations is one Huber seeks to upend throughout the series.

As I write, I am engaging with these artworks via documentation and ‘work-in-progress’ photographs: there is a strong resonance with the silhouette portrait, the mid-eighteenth-century technique pre-dating the advent of photography in which profiles are cut from black card to record a person’s appearance. Working in this tradition, Huber continues a lineage of contemporary artists, including most notably Kara Walker, the African-American interdisciplinary artist internationally recognised for her silhouettes depicting the antebellum South, which focus on sexuality, violence, slavery, subjugation and other violent historical narratives haunted by politics of cultural identity, or South African conceptual artist William Kentridge, who uses silhouette techniques to reveal the country’s history of apartheid race relations.

The Firsts – Tilo Frey (2021)

Huber’s silhouette-like work does something different, however: rather than working with contrasting monochromatic paper, on close inspection of her portraits it becomes evident that the surface is embossed and heavily detailed due to the hundreds of staples that pierce the canvas. The artist uses an industrial (compressed air) staple gun as a drawing tool to create textured layers made from a build-up of short silver lines, set against a black background from which the image appears.

Existing photographs of Saye and Frey inform these new mixed-media staple portraits, their figurative outlines made from layered surfaces of metal on canvas. A compelling image of the artist repeatedly stapling onto these works’ surfaces comes to mind, wearing protective gear such as goggles and ear protectors to shield herself from stray staples and the intense noise from the gun, transferring its use from an industrial mechanical device to an artistic drawing tool. Huber is deeply aware of the staple gun’s ‘symbolic significance as a weapon’ – and its relation to the violent histories of social injustice and racial discrimination experienced by the individuals portrayed – and what it means to appropriate it as a tool for producing action paintings.¹ The weight and sound of using this industrial tool as an active mode for creating portraiture, particularly of Black women who should not be allowed to fade into obscurity, resonate with Christina Sharpe’s call for wake work: a ‘mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un / imaginable lives’.²

"Huber’s portraits and the series The Firsts, in particular, are an important manifestation of this ‘no longer white’ world, bringing to the foreground figures of the African diaspora"

These portraits are part of Autograph’s new artist commissions, Amplify – Stranger in the Village: Afro-European Matters, the subtitle referencing African-American novelist James Baldwin’s seminal 1953 essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’. In his concluding paragraph Baldwin boldly declares that ‘this world is white no longer, and it will never be white again'.³ Huber’s portraits and the series The Firsts, in particular, are an important manifestation of this ‘no longer white’ world, bringing to the foreground figures of the African diaspora and urgently calling attention to how, in her own words, ‘the suppression put upon this community has hindered equitable societal and economic developments, which are linked directly to White supremacist thought and action’.⁴

Beyond being commemorative or celebratory work, Huber’s unique representations of photographs of Saye and Frey signal a range of references from silhouettes to religious iconography yet demonstrate an innovative portrait-making technique that allows us to rethink relationships with the archival photographic images by reimagining them anew for this present moment.

¹ See Sasha Huber’s artist statement via her website (accessed 2 April 2022).
² Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2016), p.18.
³ James Baldwin, ‘Stranger in the Village’, from Notes of A Native Son (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1955), available online (accessed 9 February 2002).
⁴ See Sasha Huber, ‘The Firsts – Rosa Emilia Clay’ (accessed 2 April 2022).

about the author


Dr Jareh Das 

is a Researcher, Writer, Curator and (occasional) Florist who lives and works between West Africa and the UK. Her interests in modern and contemporary art are cross-disciplinary, although her understanding is filtered through the lens of performance art which informs both her academic and curatorial work. Das’s most recent curated exhibition, Body Vessel Clay: Black Women, Ceramics and Contemporary Art (2022) surveys how ceramics have been disrupted, questioned and reimagined by Black women over the last seventy years beginning with seminal Nigerian potter, Ladi Kwali.

She has contributed to a wide range of international publications online and in print such as Artsy, DOMUS, PIN-UP Magazine, It’s Nice That, Wallpaper*, Ocula Magazine, Bomb Magazine, CNN Style, Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, Leonardo Journal, X-TRA, Primary Paper, The Culture Trip, Hyperallergic, ARTNews, Burlington Magazine, Cultured, The Fashion and Race Database, Crafts Magazine and WePresent. Find out more on her website.

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part of the exhibition

Sasha Huber: YOU NAME IT

Free exhibition, 11 Nov 2022 - 25 Mar 2023

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YOU NAME IT was initiated, organised, and circulated by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, in collaboration with Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam; Autograph, London, United Kingdom; and Turku Art Museum, Finland.

with art fund support

Banner image: Sasha Huber: YOU NAME IT exhibition at Autograph. 11 November 2022 - 25 March 2023. Curated by Renée Mussai, Mark Sealy and Bindi Vora. Photograph by Kate Elliot.

Images on page: 1) Sasha Huber, Khadija Saye - You Are Missed, 2021-22. Metal staples on fire burned wood; 104.5 x 73.5 cm © the artist. Courtesy of / commissioned by Autograph, 2021. Supported by Art Fund. 2) Sasha Huber, film still from The Firsts - Tilo Frey, 2021. Video music by Brandy Butler, ‘Before The Tide’ Commissioned by Autograph.

About the author: Jareh Das © Nelta Kasparian.

Other images on page: 1) Sasha Huber, Agassiz Down Under [detail], 2015. Courtesy the artist. 2) Sasha Huber, film still from Rentyhorn [detail], 2008. 4'30" min. Courtesy the artist. 3) Cover of Sasha Huber: YOU NAME IT, co-published in 2022 by Autograph, The Power Plant and Mousse Publishing. 4) Sasha Huber, Tailoring Freedom – Renty and Delia [detail], 2021. Courtesy Tamara Lanier and the artist. Commissioned by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto; Autograph, London; Turku Art Museum, Finland; and Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam. Original photographs: Renty 35-5-10/53037; Delia 35-5-10/53040, courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.