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 Glasgows 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 Scotlands guilty role in Jamaicas
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 Slaves 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 Marleys, Tosh was murdered in 1987 at
the age of 43. Mama Tosh now welcomes visitors to her sons 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 doesnt detract
one bit from her authority; in fact it seems to declare that we should
be grateful for whatever attention we receive.
Fagens picture caption starts off with the basic facts: when
and where the photograph was taken, the date of Toshs 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 Toshs own words?
Or his mothers? Could it possibly be Fagens 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 Jamaicas answer to Robert Burns.
The central room in the show, painted blood red, contains five screenprints
strongly reminiscent of Ian Hamilton-Finlays 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 Slaves 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 Slaves 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
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 Scotlands role in the slave trade,
and Jamaicas 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.
Black, Sunday Herald 25.03.07