Research project

The Slave's Lament

The Slave’s Lament is a five-channel video artwork by Graham Fagen.

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Start date

January 2015

Completion date

October 2017

The Slave’s Lament was commissioned for Scotland + Venice 2015 by the partnership of Creative Scotland, The British Council and National Galleries of Scotland, and was curated by Hospitalfield. The artwork formed part of Fagen’s solo exhibition for Scotland + Venice at the 56th Venice Biennale, which attracted 33,458 visitors.

Written in 1792, Robert Burn’s poem Slave’s Lament was the only work, at that time, which clearly communicated the appalling realities of the transatlantic slave trade. Despite being more than 200 years old, the song brings the social, political and human tragedies of today into sharp focus.

Fagen’s contemporary interpretation connects Scottish and Caribbean history through seemingly disparate musical cultures – Burn’s verse and Jamaican reggae – actioning Fagen’s intentions to link the two countries by methodologically overlaying the past with the present.

For the piece, Fagen collaborated with composer Sally Beamish. The song is performed by the Scottish Ensemble and Reggae singer Ghetto Priest and is produced by Adrian Sherwood.

Fagen’s research forms an important part of the developing conversation on colonialism and the legacy of the slave trade, as a selection of comments from the exhibition of The Slave’s Lament at the National Galleries of the Bahamas demonstrate: ‘The reflection on British colonialism’s impact and cultural dominance of slavery is exceptionally and poignantly explored by the artist.

Tate acquired The Slave’s Lament for their permanent collection and it has been exhibited widely through the UK, the USA and China. The work has also been toured by the British Council in Canada and the Caribbean. Several publications have been produced about the artwork’s historical basis and social impact.


Project lead(s)

Professor Graham Fagen