GRAHAM FAGEN THE SLAVE’S LAMENT Scottish National Portrait Gallery review Friday 19th May 2017


Graham Fagen: The Slave’s Lament at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a four screen audio visual installation that is inspired by Robert Burn’s Poem “The Slave’s Lament” published in 1792.

With fellow collaborators on this work – Sally Beamish who has written a haunting score for cello, violin and double bass played by members of the Scottish Ensemble and reggae artist Ghetto Priest on vocals and one solo screen, we get a completely new visual and audio take on “The Slave’s Lament”.   Production and guitar are provided by Adrian Sherwood and Skip McDonald who helped to found the classic dub record label On-U Sound.

There is an almost surreal quality to watching and listening to this work with its four screen display in a gallery setting, and as you listen to the lyrics of the poem and what the subject matter is about, the contrast with its content and the beautiful music of Sally Beamish make an interesting contrast – a bit like “Beauty and The Beast”.  There is also that element via the screens of looking into a mirror and not liking the reflection that you see coming back at you.  The history of slavery is ugly and our historical involvement in it as a nation is a subject that we have perhaps never really come to terms with.  The financial rewards for this vast trade in human misery were enormous – whether from the  physical transportation of human beings reduced to nothing more than a note on a cargo manifest or the vast profits from sugar or cotton plantations (or whatever other work), the inescapable fact that many of our great merchant cities were in part built on the profits of slavery is something that cannot be ignored even now in the 21st century as just another historical note.  Edinburgh, our great classical city of architecture that we walk around every day owes at least some of its historical wealth to the direct or indirect profits of slavery somewhere in the world at some time.

This installation also makes us realise just how close we are as a nation to having no national poet called Robert Burns.  Historical records indicate that had the first publication of his collected poems not been a success (his plan B in some people’s opinions), Robert Burns was set to escape some of the many problems in his personal life around that time and set sail upon “The Nancy” to take up a position as a book-keeper on a plantation in Jamaica at an estate near Port Antonio.

Graham Fagen has already exhibited “The Slave’s Lament” at Port Antonio, and it will be interesting to see how reactions to this work differ in Scotland as, although we can look back on history with horror at commercial slavery reducing a human being to cargo or livestock, someone like myself from a white Scottish background can never feel in my heart what it feels like to know my ancestors were treated in this way.  Part of the personal experience of this work will always be excluded from me.

Here below are the actual words from “The Slave’s Lament”

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
     For the lands of Virginia, ginia O;
 Torn from the lovely shore, and must never see it more,
     And alas! I am weary, weary, O!

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow or frost,
     Like the lands of Virginia, ginia O;
 There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
     And alas! I am weary, weary, O!

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
      In the lands of Virginia, ginia O;
 And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
      And alas! I am weary, weary, O!

This exhibition runs from 20th May to 29th October 2017.

For anyone interested in more details on the sheer commercial scale of slavery of this period and the UK as a whole’s involvement in it, this link to an article in The Guardian newspaper from 2015 is a good starting point

Review by Tom King

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