There can be few artists in Scotland better suited than Graham Fagen to a commission marking the bicentenary anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The artist has returned again and again to the interfaces between Scottish and Jamaican culture, whether real, imagined or brought into being by Fagen himself. In Radio Roselle, a pirate station broadcast a mix of reggae and Scots verse from somewhere in the Atlantic. With Blood Shed, Fagen continued to broadcast music and verse from the two nations, this time matching it to a map of the British Empire. His best experiment in cultural combining came with Clean Hands Cold Heart, a 2005 show at Tramway, which featured a video documenting the recording of reggae versions of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne and The Slaves Lament, sung by Ghetto Priest, produced by British dub impresario Adrian Sherwood.
Here, though, when explicitly presented as a meditation on the slave trade, in a building built on the profits of that trade, Fagen’s tangential, light approach threatens to buckle under the weight of his theme.
The show opens with West Coast Looking West (Caribbean), a photograph of a sunset, the sort of thing you might see when forced to view a friend’s holiday snaps. Beside it hangs another photograph, the Portrait of Alvera Coke (AKA Mama Tosh). A note explains that Coke is mother to reggae legend and one-time Bob Marley collaborator Peter Tosh, before slipping away from the standard, supposedly objective museological tone, telling us that Tosh, ‘a saint’, was ‘sent to save the world from the duppies and the vampires and all evil spirits’.
In the next room, which has been given a new coat of blood-red paint, we return to themes familiar from Fagen’s past practice. The roots of the artist’s fascination with Ecosso-Jamaican culture lie in his own love of Jamaican music as a teenager growing up in Ayrshire, and his discovery that Robert Burns, before his ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect’ proved a hit, sought out employment as a book-keeper on a Jamaican plantation. Three prints based on 18th Century advertisments detail three ships - Bell, Nancy and Roselle - on which Burns might have sailed had his poems failed. On the opposite wall hangs another print, ‘Plans And Records’, which shows the plan of a slave ship’s cramped conditions, its key replaced with a list of songs on slavery by reggae artists and groups with names that recall both African and European heritage - The Ethiopians, Junior Delgado, Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs - alongside, inevitably, Burns and The Slave’s Lament. Beside it, borrowing Am I not a Man and a Brother, the slogan of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England , for its title, another print shows two human skeletons, one in positive, the other in negative, touching hands.
This apparently glib plea for racial harmony points to a problem at the heart of Fagen’s practice, at least in this context, that continues in piece from which this show draws its title, Downpresserer.
A singer, trumpet player and bongo drummer are shown on a Jamaican beach, their improvised rendition of Burns’ A Slave’s Lament occasionally drowned out by surf crashing onto the shore. It’s a typical Fagen gesture, the poem is relocated to a new, apt setting, and voiced by descendants of the work’s imagined narrator, but here such a gesture raises awkward questions. The musicians are anonymous, uncredited and, quite possibly, unpaid. Does Fagen mean to highlight the ongoing impact of the slave trade through his camera’s ‘white gaze’? Or, in his rush to combine and juxtapose, has he forgotten the reason why ancestors of these men came to be on Jamaica, and forgotten the reason why his bringing together of Scots and Jamaican cultural histories is possible in the first place? Probably not, but without even a hint that Fagen is aware of these issues, it is difficult to avoid the possibility that his focus on cultural minutiae has blinded him to the bigger picture.
To borrow a term from Jamaican music production, Fagen is engaged in dubbing culture. Just as a reggae producer will take a finished song back to the studio and produce a dub version by stripping away some elements and highlighting others, so Fagen lights upon historical fact, extracting and combining elements to his own ends. But where the dub producer’s role is ultimately functional, emphasising the pulse at the heart of a song at the expense of the sung narrative, Fagen’s role is uncertain - we can see what he is doing, in his twisting and turning of historical narratives, but not why.
Ordinarily, Fagens simple gestures are not simplistic, they are subtle, rich, evocative, offering new routes into two cultures. But here, in this context, his works skate close to failure in their sidelong glances toward the issue at hand,. It is as if Fagen has chosen to continue along the road his work has long taken him, rather than take the opportunity granted by this commission to look anew at the slave trade.
This review was first published in The Herald on March 30th, 2007.