The politics of memory in the German lands are particularly fraught, but this has created openings for Black activists to raise questions about whose memory counts and whose experiences are silenced. Through wide-ranging public education activities and campaigns to challenge monuments and street names, they draw attention to the colonial past and its legacies in the present. Although most of the activism has taken place in Germany, there have also been projects, campaigns, and new research in Switzerland.
One remarkable project is an ongoing multimedia campaign called “Demounting Agassiz,” initiated in 2007 by a transatlantic committee of scholars, artists, and activists led by the Swiss historian Hans Fässler. The campaign focuses on the legacy of Swiss-American scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873). Agassiz was widely known and respected for his work as a paleontologist, geologist, and general promoter of science to the public. He was also widely known as a virulent racist who was utterly disgusted by the idea that all humans had come from the same origin. Through demeaning examinations of African-American slaves and Brazilians, he sought to prove that the non-white races were inferior to the white race and should be kept entirely distinct. In its many strands, the project highlights the racism in Agassiz’s work and interrogates how he has been memorialized around the world, for example through the naming of streets and, most notably, a peak in the Alps. The campaign’s founding demand is for “Agassizhorn” to be renamed after Renty, a man who had been taken from the Congo region, enslaved in South Carolina, and then photographed for study by Agassiz, and the project continues through a travelling museum exhibition.
Sasha Huber is a Swiss-Haitian artist based in Finland, and her numerous installations and public interventions illustrate how the campaign interrogates Agassiz’s legacy. She has produced self-portraits and proclamations in sites named after Agassiz, a monologue in which the naturalist defends his ideas in the present, and an ongoing series of portraits done in nails that interrogate the impact of structural racism. One of her first projects, illustrated above, was in August 2008, when she travelled to the peak of Agassizhorn to install a memorial plaque to Renty.
In a similar way to those demanding the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States and colonial monuments in South Africa and the United Kingdom, Huber calls for the Swiss to confront their engagement with colonialism, slavery, and racism in the past. In the process, as Janice Cheddie puts it, she insists on the need to re-write the connection between past and present, using public commemoration to undermine the myth of a “race-less” Switzerland.
Source: Sasha Huber, Rentyhorn – The Intervention (2008), photography by Siro Micheroli. ©Sasha Huber.
From Agassizhorn to Rentyhorn (2008) by Jeff Bowersox and Sasha Huber is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at http://sashahuber.com/?cat=5&lang=fi&mstr=4. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.