Robert Burns & Graham Fagen

January 25 is Burns Night and as readings of his work echo in homes across the country with images of the man appearing on our social media timelines, we thought we would look at works by Graham Fagen from Glasgow Museums’ modern and contemporary art collection.

Born in Glasgow, but moved while young to the same area as the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns, Ayrshire, Graham Fagen’s school days were filled with memorising Burns’ poems. However, as a young man, punk and reggae music spoke more to him more than what he calls ‘the sterilised shortbread tin version of Burns’ that he was taught. That was until he found out about this cross-over point between Burns and Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae.

“When I discovered that Burns had booked those passages, it gave me that creative link as well as making me feel very angry that while I was being taught about my cultural heritage, people forgot to mention the role of the slave trade.”
Graham Fagen, 16 Feb 2018, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design / Stories [1.]

The passages that Fagen refers to here were passages on the ships – Nancy, Bell and Roselle – that Burns had booked tickets for in order to take up a post on a plantation in Jamaica. Due to the increasing success of his work, he never made these journeys and stayed in Scotland to become the bard whose poems continue to be recited today.

Fagen has worked with merging Burns and reggae in various projects over the years, and it was his 2005 exhibition Clean Hands Pure Heart at Tramway that influenced GoMA’s decision to work with him for the programme to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. ** The artist was able to travel to Jamaica (supported by the British Council) and this trip along with previous research on Burns informed the exhibition Downpresserer (2007). A key work from this trip and in the exhibition was the film Downpresserer , where Fagen worked with a Jamaican reggae band to record Robert Burns’ poem The Slave’s Lament. This followed on from his 2005 recording of this poem with Ghetto Priest and Skip McDonald which was produced by Adrian Sherwood. Downpresserer was acquired for Glasgow Museums’ collection and shown in a Burns Night screening with Fagen’s works on Burns in 2011 at GoMA. Glasgow Museums also acquired other work from the show including the screen prints Nancy, Bell, Roselle and Plans & Records (2007), which explore the never-taken journeys that Fagen mentioned in the interview. Three of the prints show each of the three ships (The Nancy, The Bell and The Roselle), taken from archival adverts for the voyages.

‘The Nancy: clear to sail from Greenock to Savannah-la-Mar, Jamaica, on 10 August, 1786.’
‘The Bell: clear to sail for Kingston, Jamaica ‘by the end of September’
‘The Roselle, which ‘will positively sail on the 15th of December’ from Leith, bound for both Jamaican ports.’

Fagen deliberately doesn’t tell you what happened next or why Burns never boarded these ships, leaving these potential diversions in history open for the viewer. Burns booked passage on all three boats, yet as each voyage was set to leave, a small bit of good fortune in his career allowed him to stay in Scotland and continue his dreams of being a poet. His book Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published just 10 days before the Nancy set sail and the reception among Ayrshire was so great Burns decided to let the Nancy sail without him. In the one month between the Nancy sailing and then the Bell, there was enough interest that Burns could move to Edinburgh and join the Scottish literary elite. By the middle of December, arrangements were being made for a second edition while the third and final boat, the Roselle, sailed without Burns.

The fourth print, Plans and Records (2007), is a much more sombre archival image showing the plans and records of a ship that would carry enslaved people to the plantations in which Burns had planned to work. At the bottom of the image Fagen adapts the original records of information on the ship to include a list of the albums or songs on records he owns that directly refer to slavery in their titles. In this list Burns’ The Slave’s Lament sits alongside well-known reggae songs and musicians.

These prints show ongoing research by the artist as he explores his own feelings around the connection with Burns, reggae, Scottish and West Indian heritage, and Scotland’s contribution to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in an ‘attempt to understand the history and how the past continues to impact on the present’. [ 3 ]. In making connections between historic moments, de-romanticising a figure such as Burns, and connecting this to continuing cultural moments (songs) of protests against oppression, Fagen is exploring as mentioned above, how the past affects the present. He rightly shows that poetry, songs and music are an emotional and visceral way to keep these stories and voices from the past relevant and alive for people to learn from, discuss and debate.

If you are interested in Graham Fagen’s work you can visit his website here
For an archive of the Venice Biennale project here
For a Glasgow Museums post on Robert Burns here

**For the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery, Glasgow Museums also worked with artist Beth Forde who showed her work The shadow of the object fell upon the ego at St Mungo Museum. Glasgow Museums collected works from both artists which were shown in the 2017 exhibition Polygraphs . Since 2007 Glasgow Museums’ has continued to to draw attention through its collection and archives as to how Glasgow participated in slavery and how the City’s wealth was built on the backs of enslaved people. The blog explores the ways in which the objects, the people who collected, commission and made them can shine a light on Glasgow’s relationship with transatlantic slavery during the 17th to 19th centuries.

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