The Slave’s Lament, Professor Graham Fagen, Burns and the Jamaican sugar plantation

  • Published: 16 Feb 2018

We spoke to Professor Graham Fagen about his influences and about how culture and heritage doesn't always define us.

Professor Graham Fagen, one of Scotland’s most influential artists and senior lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design like many Scots, was educated on the life and works of Robert Burns. 

A famous champion of egalitarianism, Burns is beloved by a nation and respected throughout the world. Professor Fagen recited his poems and lyrics throughout school, his work was instilled in him. But, it wasn’t until exploring his work in adult life, he discovered one of the most fascinating and lesser known facts about Burns.

In 1786, facing financial difficulties, the death of his father and a complicated love life, Burns was desperate to escape and had booked a passage to go to Jamaica to work on a plantation as a bookkeeper.

How could it be that the “people’s champion” and national Bard of Scotland could become part of an orchestra of slavery, appalling hurt and trafficking?

Growing up in Irvine in the 1970s, music played an influential role in Professor Fagen's youth. Punk initially, followed by reggae shaped his musical horizons but it also presented a conflict with his own culture and heritage. Lyrics and meanings from songs he listened to seemed more meaningful than those created by Burns. As Professor Fagen put it "I felt less connected to someone who I was told was part of my heritage, I felt I needed to start a conversation." 

“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.”

 “’The Slave’s Lament’ a lyrical piece published by Burns in 1792, raised a lots of questions and addressed my curiosity of my Scottish heritage and what I saw as the opposite Jamaican reggae.”

“I was curious as to how these two seemingly distinct interests of mine were intertwined. It’s a cultural awareness and representation through poetry and music.”

He experimented with Burns work which he often found jarring and difficult to understand, and music, typically Jamaican reggae, a genre which he insisted had more renounce with him and his peers.

The result of these inner conflicts was a moving audio-visual interpretation of Burns’ lyrics set to a melancholic rhythm and composition. It was a collaborative project composed by Sally Beamish and performed by the musicians of the Scottish Ensemble. It was produced by legendary On-U-Sound founder Adrian Sherwood who enlisted reggae singer Ghetto Priest for vocals.

Professor Fagen was chosen as the artist to represent Scotland at Scotland + Venice 2015 at the Venice Biennale. His body of work of the same title as the Burns score, was exhibited in four noble rooms of Palazzo Fontana at the Venice Biennale and curated by Hospitalfield, Arbroath. The video installation has been exhibited across various locations across Europe. 

Professor Fagen has exhibited across the world including Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; National Theatre of Scotland; Scottish National Portrait Gallery; Gallery of Modern Art. His work forms part of the following collections: Arts Council Collection; Hayward Gallery; Corporate Collection; Imperial War Museum; Royal Armouries Museum; Gallery of Modern Art; City of Edinburgh Collection; Dundee Museums and private collections in London, Glasgow, New York & Milan.


This film was commissioned by British Council for the Scotland + Venice presentation at the 56th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2015. 

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“My work has always touched on the social and the political. It has always had a pragmatic edge because of what I’m trying to communicate. Maybe it’s to do with getting older, you think about the complexities of social, cultural and political situations. Now it is starting to feel my work is more human, maybe with more emphasis on the importance of intuition and creativity.”

Professor Graham Fagen