Traces Of Untold Stories

Robyn Denny
Curated by Els van Mourik
24 October – 22 November 2020

Artist Statement

Robyn Denny

Growing up in Durban, sugar plantations surrounded me – it was their lush fecundity which first drew me in.

Yet over time, a guttural unease – unconscious, unarticulatable – began to emerge. As a girl, visiting the Mauritian sugar plantations echoed and amplified these guttural inklings.

Now in Príncipe, where the old sugar and chocolate estate ruins are being devoured by nature, traces can be found about how plantations – such as the ones of my childhood – came into being. A tension and devouring is enacted in the foliage and architecture I paint and film on this barely known African island off Equatorial Guinea.

Here, I can feel in my epigenetics the recent violent thrust of the British/Dutch East India Companies, and the Portuguese with their own imperial economic voracity. A colonial wrenching and exploitation of a people to extract from Príncipe, but also from Mauritius and Durban, the sweet yet bitter yields of my childhood.

Nearing the completion of this film and painting cycle, the arc of exploration can be distilled into one motif: ‘tropical plantations and their subterranean stories’.

Curatorial statement by Els van Mourik

In order to understand where you are going, you need to understand where you have come from.

In Robyn’s own words:

“I was born in 1972 in Durban, South Africa. Durban, my place of birth: hot, tropical, humid, palms, plantations, sugarcane. Growing up in Durban, sugar plantations surrounded me – it was their lush fecundity which first drew me in, yet, over time, a guttural unease emerged with the knowledge of how such plantations had come into being through indentured labour. This challenge to my uncomplicated appreciation of colonial cash crops has informed the basis for my current work – Traces of Untold Stories – which is set some 4000 kilometres north- west of my childhood home.”

The exhibition Traces of Untold Stories reveals the work of an artist who is questioning, rather than accepting, the subterranean stories that her parents’ generation have been holding on to. By exploring traces of untold stories, Robyn Denny forces herself and her viewers to see the unspeakable aspects of the colonial past and conflicted present. Robyn’s earlier work was drawn from different sites across the African continent, where she engaged in an artistic process with a relevant lens to the topics of colonial expansion: plantation life, enslavement, personal narratives, trauma and renewal. Her artistic practice reflects the dual problems of the broader public inability to come to terms with the past and the undercurrent of denial of the immediate past. In her artistic vision, the unravelling of the colonial history cannot undo itself without an effort from those who were beneficiaries of the system of oppression .

This time it was a friend’s invitation which brought Robyn Denny to the chocolate plantation  ruins of Príncipe, a tiny island off the western equatorial coast of Africa. A few months later, just before lockdown, she returned to the islands for a fact-finding mission. Príncipe Island is more than 35 million years old – it was created by volcanic lava, which is why the soil is so rich. It was completely uninhabited until the Portuguese arrived in 1471 and began the process of colonialisation, bringing slaves from Angola and Cape Verde to work the sugar, coffee and cacao plantations (roças). Returning to the island of Príncipe to film the plantation ruins was a haunting experience for Robyn Denny; walking through the decaying buildings where the natural world is pouring right through, returning those buildings to nature, the collective memory of deep pain is viscerally perceptible.

Rather than interpreting the exhibition as a direct record or a complete story, it’s more a process of memory- making in itself – collecting fragments to make it real, to find things that you can see, touch and feel, away from the numbers and statistics, instead focussing on the stories of people who endured this era. Robyn Denny’s work creates space for collaborative knowledge-sharing and discourse about the accounts of physical, mental and sexual abuse that were left unspoken by enslaved people and have been omitted from our history books. The unspoken, or unspeakable, can be understood as the traumatic site of the slave narrative and its painful history: the deeply embedded culture of turning a blind eye is at the core of our contemporary society and is still impacting our individual and collective subconscious.

Developing awareness of emotions and conflicts, as well as our own and others’ blind spots, allows us to be more fully present in the here and now; to understand what is really going on in society and between groups and individuals. This exhibition gives us an opportunity to place our focus on our internal world, while simultaneously looking outward, at the context in which we are operating.

While her journey began as an exploration of production and exploitation in the magically beautiful chocolate islands, the artist felt compelled to look into the question of what renewal and sustainability might look like, going forward. The rainforest is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve focussed on environmental conservation and Fundação Príncipe is a local NGO working on the economic and social development opportunities of the community. As an ode to their work, the proceeds from sales of Denny’s limited-edition prints will go towards supporting the valuable work done by Fundação Príncipe.

During the exhibition, several walkthroughs with the artist will be organised – dates and times will be announced in the Berman Contemporary newsletter.

1. Seeing the Unspeakable – art by Kara Walker, Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, 2004
2. Trade Routes – History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Okwui Enwezor, 1997
3. Chocolate Islands – Cocoa, Slavery and Colonial Africa, Catherine Higgs, 2012
4. De geschiedenis van de slavernij – van Mesopotamië tot moderne mensenhandel, Dick Harrison, 2015

Limited edition prints in support of Fundação Príncipe

Fundação Príncipe is a local NGO based on Príncipe Island (São Tomé & Príncipe, West Africa) with the mission to create economic and social development opportunities, inspiring both current and future generations through – and for – biodiversity conservation.

Robyn Denny’s paintings and accompanying film, was inspired by the ruins of Roça Sundy chocolate plantation on Príncipe. Once a slave colony, Príncipe now constitutes a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, a pristine ecological paradise focused on environmental sustainability, conservation and community building.

Proceeds of Denny’s limited edition prints go towards supporting the work of the Fundação Príncipe; guardians of the community and the rainforest. These prints will be available online from Thursday 22 October 2020.


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