Skip to main content

Had We Never

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, August 17th 2017

Given events in Charlottesville, Virginia over the last week, the symbolic significance of statues couldn't be clearer. Virginia, after all, was one of the key points of the global perambulations of the nineteenth century slave trade. It was also the state where confederate general Robert E Lee commanded his army. More than a century on, the proposed removal of Lee's statue in Charlottesville became the alt.right/fascist mob's main battleground.

In the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, meanwhile, John Flaxman's 1828 white marble statue of Robert Burns stands centre stage tall and proud at the centre of the Grand Hall, not giving an inkling of the national bard's own flirtation with the slave trade. Burns made plans several times to embark on a ship to the West Indies to become a slave driver. In the end he never set sail, but the intention was there.

As part of Edinburgh Art Festival, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is currently housing two complementary installations by leading Scottish artists that challenge Burns' assorted perceived images by transcending them. In the Gallery's Grand Hall, Douglas Gordon has created Black Burns, in which Flaxman's original has been cast in black marble, then smashed into pieces, which lay sprawled at the feet of Flaxman's imperious white forebear.

In the gallery next door, The Slave's Lament is a video installation by Graham Fagen, in which reggae singer Ghetto Priest sings a new setting of Burns' lyric that empathises with those trafficked and put into slavery. Composed by Sally Beamish, the recording is produced by Adrian Sherwood, whose On-U-Sound record label has been a melting pot of dub reggae for almost forty years.

Fagen's installation was originally curated by Hospitalfield, Arbroath and seen when Fagen represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2015. This follows Fagen's previous melding of Burns with reggae, first with Clean Hands Warm Heart at Tramway, Glasgow in 2005, then with I Murder Hate at the Tolbooth and Changing Room, Stirling, in 2009. While the former video installation featured Ghetto Priest singing a mash up of The Slave's Lament and Auld Lang Syne, the latter saw Ghetto Priest and Sherwood perform with Tackhead's Skip MacDonald, folk guitarist Ian King and percussionist Pete Lockett to coincide with a new recording of the Burns lyric that gave the show its name.

The fact that both artists discovered reggae by way of punk, and bunked off life drawing class while at Glasgow School of Art to see a secret gig by The Clash seems relevant somehow. This is both to Fagen and Gordon's artworks, and to the fifty minute compendium of poetry and music that formed Had We Never itself. There are umbilical links too in the evocative performances by Ghetto Priest and Scots Makar Jackie Kay.

Billed in the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, who presented the event in collaboration with SNPG, as Robert Burns: Chains and Slavery, Had We Never takes its title from lines in Burns' Ae Fond Kiss, sung live here by bass singer Brian Bannatyne-Scott. This followed a rendition of The Slave's Lament by countertenor David James which opened the late night programme with the shattered fragments of Gordon's Black Burns cordoned off, as if a fatal accident had taken place. The audience seated around it bear witness alongside Flaxman's statue, which remains upright and untouched.

With Kay reading poems inbetween the songs with a stark emotional clarity, a loose narrative emerges that shifts the meanings of things by way of other influences. So when Ghetto Priest steps up to sing Beamish's setting of The Slave's Lament, played here by violinist Jonathan Morton, cellist Alison Lawrence and double bassist Diane Clark, all of the Scottish Ensemble, it opens out Burns' original words through more than two centuries of trickle-down oppression. James' rendition of Estonian composer Arvo Part's setting of My Heart's in the Highlands may sound more formal, but a similar sense of multi-cultural roots criss-crossing each other pervades throughout. Inbetween, Shostakovich's takes on O wert thou in the cauld blast and McPherson's Farewell do something similar.

While by no means deliberate, all this reflects the uncomfortable truths tackled in stunning fashion by Edinburgh band Young Fathers in a video filmed last month at SNPG, when they attacked the whitewashing of history head on through a devastating new spoken word piece. While the video wasn't part of Had We Never's programme, the racist bile it attracted from online trolls in response seemed to confirm Young Fathers' point.

A closing A Man's A Man doesn't let Burns off the hook. Rather, it seems to acknowledge his flaws. For all his seeming assurance on the outside, inside – just like Black Burns - he's in pieces.

Product, August 2017


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Suzy Glass – Message from the Skies

Freedom of movement matters to Suzy Glass, the arts and events producer currently overseeing the second edition of Message from the Skies.This animated literary derive around the city forms part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, and runs right through till Burns’ Night. Glass’ concerns are inherent in the event itself, which has commissioned six writers from different disciplines and experiences to each pen a love letter to Europe. Each writer has then paired up with a composer and visual artist or film-maker, with the results of each collaboration projected in monumental fashion on the walls of one of half a dozen of the capital’s most iconic buildings.
With venues stretching from the south side of Edinburgh to Leith, and with one city centre stop requiring a walk up Calton Hill, there is considerable legwork required to complete the circuit. It shouldn’t be considered a race, however, and audiences are free to move between venues at their leisure, visiting each site on d…

Kieran Hurley – Mouthpiece

Things have changed since Kieran Hurley first began writing the play that would become Mouthpiece, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend. At the time, Hurley was, in his own words, “quite new on the scene.” As a writer and performer, he had already scored hits with Beats and Chalk Farm, two pieces that put him on the map with a new generation of theatre-makers steeped in an equally new wave of grassroots opposition that drew from the iconography of revolutions past. Where Beats looked at the politicisation of 1990s club culture, Chalk Farm, co-written with AJ Taudevin, focused on a teenage boy caught up in the 2011 London riots.
More plays followed. Some, like Heads Up used the same solo story-telling aesthetic to look at an everyday apocalypse. More recently, Square Go, written with Gary McNair, dissected toxic masculinity through a school playground fight.
All the while as Hurley developed as a writer, from new kid on the block to established provocateur, this…

Rob Drummond – The Mack

Rob Drummond was at home in England when he looked at the news feed on his phone, and saw a post about the fire at Glasgow School of Art. It was June 2018, and the writer and performer behind such hits as Grain in the Blood, Bullet Catch and Our Fathers initially presumed the post was to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2014 blaze in GSA’s Mackintosh Building, which was undergoing a major restoration after much of it was destroyed.
As it turned out, the news was far worse, as reports of a second fire were beamed across the world. As someone who had taken Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic construction for granted while living in Glasgow, Drummond was as stunned as anyone else with even a passing relationship with the Mack.
While emotions continue to run high in response to the disaster, Drummond channelled his thoughts on all this into what he does best. The result is The Mack, a new play that forms part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre season in Glasgow prior …