Detail: Astrid Holm, Rose Laying the Table, 1914

What Lies Unspoken

A new special display uses a sound collage of contemporary conversations and discussions to explore works from the SMK collections that depict people of African descent or can be linked to Denmark’s past as a colonial ruler.

Experience a soundscape where researchers, academics, curators and picture activists have present-day conversations about the works exhibited. Get new perspectives on familiar works of art we thought we knew so well. And delve into stories that have hitherto lain unspoken in art works by C.W. Eckersberg, Astrid Holm, Nicolai Abildgaard and Jens Juel.

The centenary of the sale of the three islands to the USA in 1917 has prompted SMK, working in co-operation with the Royal Library in Copenhagen and the Living Archives research project, to take a fresh look at some of the works in the museum’s collection.

The exhibition includes works from the SMK collections that represent people of African descent, or can be linked to Denmark’s colonial history.  

Click on the pictures to read stories that have hitherto lain unspoken.

Frans Jansz. Post, Brazilian Landscape with Sugar Cane Plantation, 1660.

About the art work
The scene shows a sugar cane plantation in Dutch Brazil, similar to those in the Danish West Indies where sugar cane farming and sugar refining were one of the key sources of income during the colonial age. This painting shows the processes of the sugar mill, and everything seems quiet and idyllic among the many workers. What the painting does not show, however, is the fact that the workers were enslaved Africans.

When Johan Maurits, count of Nassau-Siegen, arrived in Dutch Brazil to take up his position as governor, Frans Post was among the team of artists and scientists who went with him in order to document the “New World”: its countryside, its flora and fauna, its indigenous people and life on the plantations. 

A present-day look at Denmark’s colonial past

The exhibition is based on a soundscape created by art historian Temi Odumosu from Living Archives.

She has used recordings from workshops featuring researchers, academics, curators and picture activists to create a sound collage out of present-day conversations about the works exhibited. These voices offer alternative approaches to familiar works of art we think we know so well, unfolding stories that have hitherto lain unspoken.

The exhibition also shows works selected and presented by the museum’s curators. The preparations for this exhibition unearthed new insights and shifts in how we perceive familiar works from the museum’s collection.

Past studies of the works exhibited here have focused on the history of the Danish families involved. With What Lies Unspoken SMK also wishes to consider the works from the perspective of enslaved people – an aspect that has so far been overlooked.

Read about the thoughts and process behind the exhibition in a blog by senior research curator Henrik Holm (in Danish).

“The SMK collections constitute a key source for our understanding of how political authorities and the cultural scene have defined national self-image through the ages – and it is the museum’s duty to help finesse the discussion on subjects that are relevant to our present-day society and the people who live in it.

Hence, What Lies Unspoken does not present final results and conclusions; rather, it is the beginning of an examination where new questions are asked, helping us to see the works in a new light and focusing on hitherto overlooked aspects of the collection”, says SMK’s director, Mikkel Bogh.

Practical information

Exhibition period:
6 May – 30 December 2017

Opening hours
Tuesdays – Sundays 11–17
Wednesdays 11–20
Mondays closed

Admission fee
Adults: DKK 110
Under 30: DKK 85
Under 18: Free
1 adult + 1 child: DKK 90
Annual pass holders: Free

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

About the art work
Niels Ryberg was born as a serf, but was bought out of it by an acquaintance who trained him to be a merchant. Benefiting from the so-called “florissant” (flourishing) trade in the years leading up to 1800, he grew so wealthy that eventually he himself had serfs under him.

The physical scale of this painting is in itself a sign of Ryberg’s wealth. His income came directly from supplying goods on behalf of the Danish state to the colonies, and slave trade. At the time, he described the Danish West Indies as “one of the greatest jewels in His Majesty’s crown”.

What would an enslaved person from the time have said about the painting if he or she had had the chance? The enslaved tried to be heard through uprisings such as the one that took place at Saint Dominque (Haiti) around the time when Juel painted this picture. 

Voices in the art works

Art historian Temi Odumosu says about the project:

“How can the resonance of voice nurture the breaks and silences of colonial history? What might we have to say about that which is so hard to put words to?

If the ghosts in the archives and museums could speak, what would they say? Or would they even speak at all, but instead hum a song? Where do the voices of the enslaved go? What were their soundscapes? And why should we, as curators of the past, assume that looking is an easy act?”


Hear an audio guide produced in collaboration with Mary Consolata Namagambe, a legal counsellor and active debater.

Marie Jeanne Clemens, Caricature of a Black African, 1781-1791.

About the art work
Marie Jeanne Clemens was one of the few women artists working in Denmark the eighteenth century. French by birth, she arrived in Denmark in 1781 and became part of the political circles that favoured the new Enlightenment ideals about universal human rights. Her satirical engravings contributed to public debates.

The caricature of the African person raises the question of whether Clemens is engaged in stereotyping – to produce a one-dimensional depiction based on racial ideas that can reflect generalising prejudices – or whether she has based this caricature on a real person.

Dirk Valkenburg, Ritual Slave Party on a Sugar Plantation in Surinam, 1706-1708. 

About the art work
Valkenburg’s painting is a scene from Surinam (Dutch Guiana) in South America where he was employed by the Amsterdam merchant Jonas Witsen, who owned three plantations. The objective of Valkenburg’s paintings from Surinam was to document the flora, fauna and everyday life at the plantations. Back in Amsterdam, they were exhibited in Witsen’s cabinet of curiosities as artefacts of great artistic quality and as illustrations of the owner’s lands in “the New World”.

The painting can be viewed as a genre painting (a folk scene) and may depict a ritual celebration among enslaved Africans at one of the plantations. The clothes and ritual instruments indicate that this group of enslaved people originally came from West Africa. The artist has taken great care to depict the various props, instruments and physical characteristics of the figures in a richly detailed and carefully finished style. However, the painting is also influenced by how Africans were seen in Valkenburg’s era.


Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Bowl, 1662.

About the art work
The main feature of this still life is a precious Chinese lidded porcelain jar from the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644), featuring coloured reliefs of the Eight Immortals from Taoist belief. The jar stands on an exquisite silver plate in the auricular Baroque style along with a knife with a handle fashioned from agate, a semi-precious stone. Behind the jar are two elaborate winged goblets of the Venetian type and a römer glass. The entire arrangement stands on a rare oriental table rug.

What generated the wealth that allowed Europeans to purchase precious objects like those shown in this painting? The creation of trading companies, such as the ones established in the Netherlands and Denmark, made trading on the oceans of the world an organised institution, helping countries to monopolise sectors of the trade. How can we recognise the role of the slave trade, and the work done by enslaved Africans, in these material expressions of wealth?

This project was developed in collaboration with Temi Odumosu from the research project Living Archives at Malmö University.

This project was developed in collaboration with the Royal Library where a similar soundscape is part of the exhibition Blind Spots. Images of the Danish West Indies colony.