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Graham Fagen exhibition on view at Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Graham Fagen (b.1966), Still from The Slave’s Lament, 2015 © Graham Fagen.

EDINBURGH.- The complex reputation of Scotland’s greatest cultural icon is being explored by Graham Fagen in an exhibition which is on view at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this summer. Graham Fagen, who represented Scotland at the 2015 Venice Biennale, the world’s largest showcase for contemporary art, is showing work inspired by the life and legacy of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.

Until 29 October Fagen is showing The Slave’s Lament, a four-screen audio-visual installation that was premiered in his Venice show, which is based on a pivotal moment in Burns’s life and inspired by the poignant beauty of his poem of the same name.

Burns wrote The Slave’s Lament from the perspective of an African man forced into slavery and exile in Virginia, who despairs of his fate and longs for his homeland of Senegal. The poet’s empathy with the oppressed is evident in the poem’s haunting lines, and the struggle against injustice is a powerful theme in his wider work. Against this background, Fagen’s installation touches upon fateful circumstances in the poet’s own life, which could have changed things immeasurably. In 1786, six years before the poem’s publication, Burns found himself in dire financial straits and, having received an offer of employment through a friend, came close to taking up a position as an overseer on a Jamaican sugar plantation. It was only the timely publication and instant success of his first volume of poems that prevented him from making that journey.

Growing up in the west of Scotland, as Fagen did (he was born in Glasgow in 1966), there was no escaping the poetry of Burns. He is also fascinated by the significance of popular music in people’s lives, as a force that reflects and defines personal and collective experience and identity.

Fagen often works with collaborators from a range of different disciplines, and for The Slave’s Lament, he approached Scottish composer Sally Beamish to write a score for Burns’s evocative lyrics. Her beautiful music, for violin, cello and double bass, is played by members of the Scottish Ensemble and sung by reggae artist Ghetto Priest, while production and guitar are provided by Adrian Sherwood and Skip McDonald, who helped to found the legendary dub record label On-U Sound. Their performances are captured on the four screens that comprise this thought-provoking installation, which presents a fascinating meditation on an alternative trajectory in Burns’s life, and its unknowable impact on his work, his legacy, his reputation and world literature.

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