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Untold stories from Denmark's colonial past on display at the National Gallery of Denmark
Jens Juel, Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falbe, 1797. Oil on canvas, 253 x 336,5 cm. SMK.

COPENHAGEN.- A special display at SMK – What Lies Unspoken, co-created with the Malmö University research project Living Archives and The Royal Library – explores new perspectives on works from the SMK collections that can be linked to Denmark’s colonial history. The exhibition marks the first step of an ongoing effort to shed new light on challenging subjects that are often overlooked within the realm of art.

At first glance all seems perfectly tranquil in Jens Juel’s monumental painting of the Ryberg family. The same applies to Astrid Holm’s portrayal of Rose laying a table while surrounded by flowers – a scene of serenity and warmth. However, these paintings are also evidence of Denmark’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and as a colonial ruler in the former Danish West Indies (St Croix, St Thomas, and St John).

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 – and at the communication and messages that have traditionally accompanied these works.

A poorly elucidated past in art
The vast wealth accumulated by the merchant portrayed in Jens Juel’s painting, Niels Ryberg, was amassed through the sales of goods for use on slave ships and in the slave trade. And Astrid Holm’s Rose may have been a descendant of one of the many enslaved people who were forced to serve Danish families in the Danish West Indies.

According to SMK’s director, Mikkel Bogh, the question of how Denmark’s colonial past – and the colonial era in general – is reflected in the collections of SMK is a highly relevant issue, particularly for a national gallery.

“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 Mikkel Bogh.

A present-day look at Denmark’s colonial past
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. This has required the museum’s curators to ask other questions than the ones they would usually pose. For example, they have considered the designations used about the people portrayed in the works, whether information about any of the African people was available, the background and reasons behind the creation of the various works, and how the works are perceived today.

The preparations for this exhibition unearthed new insights and shifts in how we perceive familiar works from the museum’s collection. These were supported and provoked by a special communication initiative engaging with perspectives and interpretations of artworks not ordinarily utilised as research material by the museum.

Facilitating dialogues with a diverse range of people, art historian Temi Odumosu from Living Archives has created a sound collage of present-day conversations and responses to the works in the exhibition. These voices offer alternative ways of reading and engaging with art we think we already know.

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