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Dirk Valkenburg, Rituel slavefest på en sukkerplantage i Surinam, 1706-1708

Behind | Exhibition | 11.may.2017

What lies beneath the project 'What Lies Unspoken'

Curator and senior researcher Henrik Holm blogs about the ideas and processes behind SMK’s new themed display, What Lies Unspoken. The new exhibition uses a sound collage of present-day conversations and discussions to explore works from the SMK collections that depict people of African heritage or can be associated with Denmark’s past as a colonial ruler.

We had to cover a painting with a blanket because viewing it made the artists, picture activists and debaters we had invited to discuss our new themed display physically sick. How could we possibly be that insensitive when addressing this very subject: colonialism and the portrayal of black people in Western art? Why do white people depict slavery as a party? The figures in this painting are depicted as naked, lecherous and primitive. How are you supposed to party when you have been snatched away from your native country and family to a place of hard labour and unspeakable offences against your body every day? The work of art is offensive in itself, our guests agree. We reiterate the offence by not being sensitive and thinking more closely about what we are doing.

This prompted us to change our minds: we had originally picked this work by Dirk Valkenburg to be the main work of the exhibition, the one introducing our small-scale display for What Lies Unspoken. It is a very well executed, well-preserved and very rare painting dating all the way back to 1706-8, showing enslaved people engaged in celebrations on a plantation in South America.

After covering the painting we relocate it to another position in the display. We are learning how to listen to voices and opinions other than our own. And we are learning it very directly in this project. We have deliberately subjected our points of view and actions to external pressure so that we cannot simply do what we usually do.

The basic idea
The entire idea behind the project What Lies Unspoken came from outside the museum. A research fellow in art history at Living Archives in Malmö, Temi Odumosu, urged SMK to invite a range of people to discuss works from our large collections. She is currently undertaking a similar project with the Royal Library in Copenhagen for their exhibition Blind Spots. Images of the Danish West Indies colony, opening 19 May 2017.

Prompted by the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies colony to the USA, we are seeking to bring new stories from the SMK collections out into the light of day. All of the works found at the museum were produced on the basis of a Western perspective on colonialism, slavery and the Other. As an institution, the museum is a product of an age where nations consolidated themselves by colonising other parts of the world. The collection reflects how state authority and the cultural scene have shaped and defined Denmark’s national self-image through the ages. We have depicted other cultures and people of other skin colours from a Western perspective as a matter of course, exhibiting the results in museums. In the museum space, things can often become all about beauty and rarity – even depictions of enslaved people dancing. Here we find examples of stereotypes and romanticised imagery that have persisted until the present day. Our present has many ties to colonial times, and some of them can be found in museums such as SMK. But getting these stories out in the open requires special effort.

Jens Juel, Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falbe, 1797

Untold stories
The stories of the dark aspects behind the beauty remains untold unless we create a space for them and give them voice. At times these stories are quite obviously present, as in the scene from the plantation. But at other times the darkness lies hidden, as in the painting of the Ryberg family on their estate (1797). Ryberg worked his way up from being a smallholder, almost a serf, to become a “grand merchant”, growing rich enough to have his portrait painted by the very best portrait painter of the age, Jens Juel (and on a monumental scale, too). Ryberg made some of his money from the slave trade. But this is nowhere evident in the painting. He lived during the period that Danes call call the “Florissant” (flourishing) age because of the economic boom brought about by the international triangle trade. The period would hardly be described as “flourishing” by the thousands of enslaved people who were forcibly sold and shipped away from their home countries to the West under horrific conditions.

The main product generated by this project was the workshops held at SMK and the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Many voices and statements from discussions of works from the two collections have been incorporated into the special sound collages produced by Temi Odumosu for the two institutions. The soundscapes, audio guides, texts, selection of works and the overall presentation at SMK are all outcomes of the process prompted by these workshops.

Having a plethora of voices – voices not founded in art history – speak on the basis of their own knowledge and experience runs counter to institutions that often speak with a single, authoritative voice. Voices can be authoritative, but they always come from an individual. Voices can also carry emotional overtones, and oral statements cannot claim neutrality to the same extent that a written text can. The soundtrack for this exhibition only lets us hear voices. We cannot see who is speaking. No-one is on display, and no-one is hidden. But there is a special sense of presence. The voices speak about the old works of art from a present-day perspective, making us aware that the subject does not just belong in the past. The new reflections fill in gaps in our narratives about the art works. And they help us discover aspects of the works that we did not notice before – or did not have the necessary background and experience to see.

The sound collage at SMK is a small counterpoint to habit, to the museum’s traditional – one might call it colonial – urge to see, order and understand everything.

When voices are raised, they carry many things with them out into the space where that voice meets another human being: individuality, perception, insight, physicality and the metaphysical. Being allowed to have your voice heard – by voting, through public speaking, in a museum, or in conversation – are acts that create meaning and take part in negotiations and exchanges of power. As a museum we relinquish power when we listen to others and act differently as a result. We warmly recommend this approach to everyone.

Read more about the exhibition What Lies Unspoken

arrow Comments (1)
Tankevækkende udstilling, men med rod i det faktuelle og manglende blik for kontekst.

I billedteksten til Nicolai Abildgaards skitse til en medalje for slavehandlens afskaffelse er påskrifternes tekster forkert oversat. "MISERIS SUCURERE DISCO betyder ikke "Lær at ... "

Indskrftens Vergil citat fra ord udtalt af en dronning i Afrika er en del af det dialog spil, som foregår på tegningen. HOMO SUM er et citat fra en anden latinsk talende afrikaner - Terents fra Afrika.

Et dialogisk spil, som burde have haft en kommentar.

Og så forstår man jo ikke, at dansk billedkunsts berømteste sorte slave ikke er med. Hvor er Sosia fra Abildgaards første Terents maleri? Og hvor er historien om modstanden mod slaveriet, dansk og europæisk?

Patrick Kragelund (hos hvem man kan læse mere, hvis man er interesseret).
  • Patrick Kragelund
  • 24-08-17 13:33
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