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Robyn Denny: Communicating history using nature as an amplifier

Fine artist Robyn Denny on her upcoming exhibition Cork & Cacau, why she makes art, her creative process, and future projects

By Gugulethu Mkhabela  | May 11, 2021 | Category

Image: Mario Todeschin
Image: Mario Todeschin

Feature Image: Mario Todeschin

Robyn Denny—no relation to the leading British abstract artist of the 60s and 70s (Edward Maurice FitzGerald "Robyn" Denny)—is an artist’s artist. Robyn is a UCT Michaelis School of Fine Arts graduate and attained her Master of Fine arts from Goldsmiths College in London.

Collaboration, connections and dismantling the legacy of colonialism are the driving force behind her work. The South African painter and video artist is deeply drawn to ‘the patterns of interaction and behaviour that permeates humanity.’

‘I work with images that have a deep guttural resonance. Images that move out of my head into my feeling centre,’ she states.

Cork & Cacau: Art meets Design, a contemporary collaboration with high-end designer Laurie Wiid van Heerden aims to do just that. ‘I want viewers to FEEL the essential resonance of what Laurie and I are making,’ she says. Laurie’s design studio started experimenting with cork in 2010. Initially inspired by trips to Portugal, his vision on the largely untapped potential of cork was sparked through experiencing the world’s largest natural cork producer and distributor, Corticeira Amorim and the nearby cork forests.

Image: Justin Patrick (@justinpatrickphotography)

Robyn’s series of paintings and video stills – ‘Traces of Untold Stories’ were inspired by her visits to the ‘Chocolate Islands’ of São Tomé and Príncipe, off the western equatorial coast of Africa. The former Portuguese slave colonies produced most of the world’s cacao until the early 1900s. Príncipe is now a protected biosphere reserve with Robyn contributing proceeds from the sales of her limited-edition prints to support the Fundação Príncipe NGO’s economic and social development initiatives. Robyn’s ink paintings, prints and video stills bring to life the chocolate plantation ruins of Príncipe.

We get to know Robyn Denny as she shares more on her upcoming exhibition Cork & Cacau, why she makes art, her creative process and philosophy, and future collaborations.

Any connection to or thoughts on British artist Robyn Denny and his work?

I learnt about him when I was 12. I was in London and his signature was all over the Embankment Tube Station (he designed it). I feel as a male his parents should have spelt his name Robin which is what the English traditionally do. However, he served as an inspiration to me to become as prolific and renowned as he is hanging in museums and auction houses all over the world. I do like his work but it has nothing to do with colonial dismantling which is central to my work.

How did you start making art/Why do you make art?

Children, when they have the tools to make art, make art. I have never stopped. For me art has always been a way of processing the complexity of being human.

Please tell us how you and Laurie got to collaborate and birth Cork & Cacau and your experience working with him?

My friend Jessica Gamsu, an ingenious connecter of people, listened to my obsession with the Portuguese Age of Discovery – its beauty and residue of immense cruelty. Jessica then made a quantum connection by taking me to Laurie’s design studio where the primary material is Amorim (Portuguese) Cork. My first conversations with Laurie catalysed this labyrinthian collaboration.

What can visitors look forward to learning and experiencing through this project / the one thing you want people to take away from Cork & Cacau?

I want viewers to FEEL the essential resonance of what Laurie and I are making. For me, Laurie’s pieces speak of a natural material with an interesting story. Cork’s modern commercial applications were first tapped during colonial times in deeply ambivalent circumstances. What Laurie does is hone cork into exquisite functional objects for a renewable future. Through my paintings and film stills, viewers may be enriched by embracing the paradoxical history of the work. My pieces in ‘Traces of Untold Stories’ are set within today’s ruins of the chocolate slave plantations of Príncipe island. Yet at the same time, they are also relics, ancestral reminders, embedded in what is now a biosphere reserve. Both Laurie’s and my pieces in ‘Cork & Cacau’ communicate history using nature as an amplifier.

What is your creative process and philosophy?

The smallest image or sentence can spark a two year journey of research, filming and painting. The process involves moving me out of my head into my feeling centre. As the work evolves so does an energetic embodiment through difficult inner landscapes.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

When ‘Traces of Untold Stories’ was shown in its fully curated form by Els van Mourik at Berman Contemporary last year, an Angolan man stood transfixed in front of Roça X (a very dark, abstract work) he said: “This painting gives me the feeling of being trapped on a plantation 80 years ago.”

Which young artists in SA or on the African continent would you love to collaborate with?

Collaboration is central to my work – I have completed four intense collaborations with the astounding contemporary performance artist Mamela Nyamza. Oupa Sibeko and Devarakshanam Betty Govinden are already in the crosshairs for my upcoming series.

Cork & Cacau is taking place on 15 May – 28 May at Berman Contemporary.

Saturday 15 May, 11:00

Amorim Cork South Africa’s Joaquim Sá to open the exhibition. Join the artist, designer and curator for walkabouts between 12:00 and 14:00.

Saturday 22 May, 11:00

Curator Els Van Mourik to host a conversation between art writer Ashraf Jamal, artist Robyn Denny and designer Laurie Wiid van Heerden. Walkabouts between 12:00 and 14:00.

Robyn Denny IG: @Robyndennyart

Feature Image: Mario Todeschin

For more information email [email protected] or visit bermancontemporary.com or wiiddesign.co.za.