Sasha Huber / The Firsts – Matthew Henson

Year: 2020
Medium / materials: metal staples on fire burned birch wood
Dimensions: 70 x 110 cm

Matthew Henson (1866–1955) was an African-American explorer. He was the first of a team of six men on dog sleds to reach the geographic North Pole on April 6th, 1909. The original team of twen- ty-four men, nineteen sleds and hundred thirty-three dogs were all part of the Robert Peary (1856, Pennsylvania, US–1920, Washington D.C., US) expedition. Henson accompanied Peary all together for over two decades on several expeditions. Henson’s achievement to be the first men on the North Pole was for almost half a century forgotten by history. The National Geographic Magazine wrote: “And in the year 2000 the National Geographic Society presented Henson posthumously its mostprestigious award the Hubbard Medal. Ironically, the first recipient of this prize was Robert Peary in 1906.

Sasha Huber made the portrait The Firsts – Matthew Henson as part of her ongoing portraiture series that she started in 2017. It researches historical and systematic racism and its debilitating effects on members of the contemporary African Diaspora. The suppression put upon this community has hin- dered equitable societal and economic developments, which are linked directly to White supremacist thought and action. The Firsts suggest that his hindrance is the reason why today it can still be

possible to be the ‘first black person’ to achieve specific goals across many fields of practice and countries. Some individuals have also courageously paved the way for future civil right actions, and institutionalized racism and prejudice in its execution within the western paradigm has been success- ful in holding people back, or their achievements have not received the deserved recognition and acknowledgment as in the case of Henson.

The Firsts is also dedicated to first persons from the African Diaspora that have migrated to predom- inantly White societies in various European countries in the 19th and 20th century. The first portrait was made of teacher Rosa Emilia Clay (1875-1959). She ended up in Finland in 1888 with a family of missionaries, like many children brought from Ambomaa (now Namibia). In 1899 she became the first person from the African continent to be granted Finnish citizenship. Due to racism and differen- tial treatment, Clay decided to move to the United States in 1904, where she was an active director of the American Community Choir and Theater, a teacher of the Finnish language and an active cultural activist of the labor movement after moving to the United States in 1904.


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