Rentyhorn, making the legacy of colonialism visible

I spent the past few days in Helsinki for the always brilliant Pixelache festival. Reports will start flowing later on. Yesterday morning i braved the cruel daylight saving time, woke up early and visited the exhibitions currently open at Kiasma, the city’s Contemporary Art Museum. One of them, titled It’s a Set-Up, highlights some of the works from the Kiasma collection that engage with the experiential and participatory aspect of art.

230519_rentyhorn.jpgRentyhorn, The intervention, 2008. Commissioned photography by Siro Micheroli

That’s where i discovered the work of artist and activist Sasha Huber. She is showing a video, photographs, drawings and various materials that document the performance and work she has done in the context of the De-mounting Louis Agassiz campaign.

The story starts in the 19th century with Louis Agassiz, a paleontologist, glaciologist, geologist of international renown, and a prominent innovator in the study of the Earth’s natural history. His extensive scientific legacy was recognized in many ways, one of them was to give his name to various landmarks and institutions around the world. Trouble is that the scientist was also a supporter of scientific racism. His lectures on polygenism were particularly popular among the slaveholders in the South; for many his views legitimized the belief in a lower standard of African-Americans. In the 1850s, Agassiz had daguerrotype pictures taken of Renty, a slave on a South Carolina plantation, to “scientifically prove the inferiority of the black race”.

230520_renty_drawing.jpgSasha Huber, Renty in traditional African clothing, 2008

The specific goal of the “De-mounting Louis Agassiz” campaign is to convince Swiss authorities to change the name of an Alpine peak located between the cantons of Wallis and Berne and baptize it “Rentyhorn” instead of Agassizhorn.

230526_rentyhorn.jpgRentyhorn, The intervention, 2008. Commissioned photography by Siro Micheroli

Sasha Huber decided to do more than just sign the Rentyhorn petition. She flew in helicopter to the top of Agassizhorn peak to plant a metal plaque. The sign bears an engraved portrait of Renty along with a text that denounces the fact that the Swiss-born naturalist and glaciologist Agassiz was also an influential racist and a pioneering thinker of apartheid. The text concludes that the peak ought to be renamed “Rentyhorn”.

After the expedition, Huber and other members of “De-mounting Louis Agassiz” submitted an official request for the plaque to be fixed to the rocks of the summit permanently and for the mountain to be renamed.

230525_rentyhorn.jpgRentyhorn, The intervention. 2008. Commissioned photography by Siro Micheroli

230536_rentyhorn.jpgRentyhorn, The intervention. 2008. Commissioned photography by Siro Micheroli

Rentyhorn is a symbolic but also powerful way to make the legacy of colonialism visible. I wish Belgium, my dear country, would be inspired by the idea.

More information about the campaign in english, french and german. And of course, the petition.

The exhibition It’s a Set-Up is on view at Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland until February, 20, 2011.