There’s something ghostly about the intimacy of the art film Slave’s Lament and the accompanying series of Indian Inks by Graham Fagen, a Glaswegian artist represented by Mile End’s Matt’s Gallery.
Notions of cultural redemption, closeness and personal detail take centre stage as Fagen looks at Scotland’s links to the slave trade and colonialism, particularly Jamaica.
The four channel film is a performance of the song ‘Slave’s Lament’, written in 1792 by Robert Burns.
The film matches the words of the poet to reggae music and is a collaboration with singer Ghetto Priest, accompanied by classical musicians.
The song of tear-making poignancy and other worldly sorrow is written in the voice of a Senegalese person transported to a Virginian plantation.
Robert Burns, though known for his abolitionist tendencies, was close to becoming a slave overseer on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the late 1780s.
His finances in a mess and his writing going nowhere, the desperate poet saw a chance to get rich quick and put down a nine guineas deposit to secure his passage.
But the success of publishing a book of his poetry to raise money for the trip caused his life to veer forever in a different direction.
Fagen’s filmed version of the song is haunting, as different tones of the past and modes of action resonate to create the sense of a still lingering presence of a recently lived past.
The video focuses on the singer’s teeth, a striking motif in Fagen’s recent work. There’s a vulnerability to teeth, as the only exposed bones in the human body and our principal source of social exchange.
Fagen’s interest in the depiction of teeth was sparked by casts of George Washington’s mouth, and the discovery that his dentist had taken a philosophy course on the phenomenology of dentistry.
Possessing a raw immediacy, the Indian Inks look like the Mexican Day of the Dead masks, or Venetian Carnival Masques. Each painting is punctuated by an identical starting point of the artist own teeth. These sensory portraits are created by Fagen closing his eyes, feeling his teeth and blindly rendering them.
From there he continues to paint blindly about how he feels, whether it is first thing on a glum Monday morning or the fizzing energy of going out on a Friday night.
The Mighty Scheme: Graham Fagen
Until 26 June
CGP London and Matt’s Gallery
The Gallery by the Pool