Graham Fagen: Downpresserer
Until May 28; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Two years ago, Glasgow artist Graham Fagen mounted an impressive exhibition at Tramway, inspired by Robert Burns’ abortive attempts to emigrate to Jamaica. The theatrical atmosphere and the superb dub reggae rendering of two Burns songs made for a memorable experience.

Ten days ago, Fagen opened a new exhibition at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. Commissioned to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, the show offered an excellent opportunity for Fagen to delve deeper into Scotland’s guilty role in Jamaica’s history.

That, unfortunately, is not how it worked out. Despite the novelty of a research trip to Jamaica, the artist has produced a show which adds nothing to its forerunner, and in some ways takes away from it.

The opening room contains two large photographs: one, like a cheap postcard scaled up, looks out to the sea and the orangey skies to the west of Jamaica. “Torn from that lovely shore,” a wistful voice might whisper into the sunset, quoting The Slave’s Lament, “and must never see it more; And alas! I am weary, weary O.”

The second photograph is a portrait of Alvera Coke, better known as Mama Tosh, the mother of the legendary Reggae singer, Peter Tosh. A contemporary of Bob Marley’s, Tosh was murdered in 1987 at the age of 43. Mama Tosh now welcomes visitors to her son’s memorial, and Fagen has taken the opportunity to photograph her on her veranda.

Set against the bright sunlit walls of her home, Mama Tosh fixes us with her commanding glare. The dirt on her dress doesn’t detract one bit from her authority; in fact it seems to declare that we should be grateful for whatever attention we receive.

Fagen’s picture caption starts off with the basic facts: when and where the photograph was taken, the date of Tosh’s killing. But quickly the language becomes wildly subjective, quite out of tune with its conventional museum label format. Tosh, it tells us, was “sent to save the world from the duppies and the vampires and all evil spirits by exposing the filth and corruption and to expunge the wickedness of the ghosts that haunted him his entire life.”

Whose voice is speaking now, you wonder. Is it Tosh’s own words? Or his mother’s? Could it possibly be Fagen’s own opinion? A quick trip to google reveals that this is a popular form of words in biographies of the musician, giving us a hint of the colourful mythologies which surround Jamaica’s answer to Robert Burns.

The central room in the show, painted blood red, contains five screenprints strongly reminiscent of Ian Hamilton-Finlay’s pared-down images and concrete poetry. Three depict the boats which Burns booked for the journey he never made. Unsuccessful at home, he planned to find his fortune as a book-keeper on a sugar plantation, but just before he was due to set sail, his poems met with success.

The prints quote the advertised details of the ships: their names, the ship masters, and the date and port of their embarkation. They are a succinct reminder of how history can be so radically diverted by small coincidences of timing.

The final room contains a new video, made in Jamaica. Two years ago, Fagen commissioned the legendary Rastafarian, Ghetto Priest, to make his own versions of The Slave’s Lament and of Auld Lang Syne. The songs were utterly refreshed by the singer, and revealed themselves to be ideally suited to the Jamaican tempo.

Having arrived in Jamaica, Fagen asked three local musicians to improvise The Slave’s Lament against the backdrop of the sea. They made a pretty good job of it, but their unamplified voices were no match for the booming rush of the waves against the shore. After the studio perfection of Ghetto Priest, this video, Downpresserer, is a let down. Why remake something which was so good, and allow technical quality to drag it down?

Why, too, make no mention of the names of these accomplished local musicians? In the context of the imperial slave trade, it is very discomforting to be presented with the work of a white European which does not acknowledge the names of the black Jamaicans who made it possible.

A ring-binder at the exit of the show, marked “Research Information”, contains photocopies of material relevant to the show. Here, at last, are explicit references to Scotland’s role in the slave trade, and Jamaica’s strong Scottish influence (its placenames including Glasgow, Hampden, Culloden and Dundee). As a piece of research, this collection of scraps is extremely limited. But the sad truth is that this ring-binder is more likely to hold your attention than the artworks on the wall.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 25.03.07