For an exhibition on the historical significance of slavery, Bahamian artist Sonia Farmer created a book based on a 17th-century guidebook. Scottish artist Graham Fagen based his audio-video installation on an 18th century poem.
Whose story are you telling in this exhibition?
Sonia Farmer: My limited-edition artist's book is called A True and Exact History. It is an 'erasure' of Richard Ligon’s 1657 guidebook, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes. Erasure is a process that uses an existing text to change a story by removing some words and leaving others exposed.
With my book, I am trying to avoid the 'singular story' – one story with a limited perspective that defines a place or group of people. I want to challenge what it means to write 'a true and exact history' of anything.
Graham Fagen: The Slave’s Lament is a re-working of the Robert Burns song of the same name, first published in 1792. My version is a five-channel audio-video work featuring the singer Ghetto Priest and musicians from the Scottish Ensemble. It is produced by Adrian Sherwood and composed by Sally Beamish.
The Slave’s Lament was Robert Burns’ only work to empathise with the hurt of displaced, trafficked and enslaved people. For me, the artwork is a way to start a conversation about the amnesia and the hypocrisy of the history of the slave trade. For Ghetto Priest, it is 'to be the voice, to represent over 800 million souls.'
Why is now the time to tell that story?
Graham Fagen: Because according to Professor Sir Tom Devine, in his conclusion to Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past, 'the relationship between England and slavery is one that has long been recognised and understood, the linkages with Scotland much less so. It was believed that the "nefarious trade" in human beings within Empire was always an English monopoly and never a Scottish preserve.'
He goes on to say that Scotland’s lack of knowledge about its involvement with the trans-Atlantic slave trade was due to academic neglect as well as popular amnesia.
Sonia Farmer: In A True and Exact History, I want to us think about the stories we tell ourselves when we only have one version of history to work from. I want us to think about what happens when we question that story, or make room for others, or make room for our own.
You've based your work on a poem, The Slave's Lament by Robert Burns. Why did you choose that source?
Graham Fagen: At school, I learned that the songs and poems of Robert Burns were my cultural heritage. Away from school, my music of choice was punk and reggae and dub poetry. I grew up wondering why the lyrics of my taught cultural heritage meant nothing to me or my peer group, while the reggae and dub poetry lyrics helped shape and form our social, cultural and political understandings.
When I discovered that Burns had booked three passages to live and work in Jamaica as an overseer of slaves on a sugar plantation, I had a factual historical link between my formal (taught at school) and informal (learned on my own, away from school) cultural education. I had many questions. Why did schools not teach this history? What did Burns' The Slave's Lament mean when first published in 1792, and what does it mean today?
Why did you choose Richard Ligon's guidebook A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes as the source for your work?
Sonia Farmer: I found A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes through a residency at the Fresh Milk art platform in Barbados. It changed the direction of my work while at the residency. When I finished the book, I wasn't sure whether I had read a travelogue, a piece of natural history, a social critique, or a business manual.
One thing is certain - I did not read a 'true and exact' history of anything except Ligon’s singular experience in Barbados. If it was one story among many, that wouldn't matter. But because this is one of the earliest accounts we have of Barbados, this narrative has become a major part of the island’s history.
Did you subvert its original or most common meaning?
Sonia Farmer: I used the 'erasure' process to subvert Ligon's power as the narrator, by using the book's own language against itself. In addition to erasing text, I also re-purposed drawings of botanicals, architectural plans for a sugar mill, and a topological map of Barbados. I presented fragments of these images throughout the book to accompany the text. The reader only sees pieces of coastlines, a magnified glimpse of a blueprint, or an extracted map figure or botanical drawing – never the entire image or map itself. This unsettled result is the desired result.
Graham Fagen: I don’t think I subverted it. I wanted to share what I knew of the song with the singers, musicians and producers who were making the dub reggae music I was listening to. I wanted to see if they would be interested enough in the song and its history to make a new version of it with me, and to see if it could belong to others.
The musician Arvo Pärt's version of My Heart’s in the Highlands by Robert Burns influenced my version of The Slave’s Lament. Arvo Pärt is from Estonia and learned My Heart’s in the Highlands at school. For him, it was a song of freedom. I had understood the song as a cultural cliché, but hearing the lyrics with the sound he had created for them changed my perception.
I’m human; I want to know about others and to share. How can you learn your cultural heritage at school if you are not given all the facts? When learning about the pink countries on the old school maps of the world, signifying the British Empire, I didn’t feel British pride; I felt it to be a disgraceful abuse of humanity.
I hope the influences I brought to the original lyrics open the thoughts and questions people may have when seeing and listening to the work. I also hope that we become aware of our historical acts and think of the consequences.
Talk us through the process of turning an idea into a finished work of art.
Graham Fagen: I have been collaborating with music producer Adrian Sherwood and singer Ghetto Priest since 2004. For this project, I invited the composer Sally Beamish to work on a score that would marry the sonic influence of the strings of the violin, cello and double bass, played by musicians from the Scottish Ensemble, to the reggae dub sound that Adrian and Ghetto Priest offer. The result is an audio-video work that shows the actions of the musicians and singer. As viewers, we see those actions, and we experience the reaction through the sound they create.
It has taken 14 years of doubt, uncertainty and worry, as well as a lot of travel and meetings, mixed in with small moments of creative joy, of collaboration and conversations with great people that will always live with me.
Sonia Farmer: It took me two years. I chose the form (unbound pages); colours (red, black, and beige); paper (Lettra - thick cardstock); and typefaces. This is my favorite part, letting the typefaces add their own meaning.
I spent a lot of time extracting the figures from Ligon’s topological map digitally, separating the land mass into parishes, and then placing those pieces into the story. After many digital mock-ups and printing tests over three months, I ordered polymer plates (purchased with a grant from the Caxton Club of Chicago), ordered and trimmed paper, made printing guides and mixed ink.
There have been many printing issues – roller height, consistent inking, packing, chipped type, not enough type, humidity or lack thereof affecting the paper, press changes, oiling issues, registration, proofing.
Instead of binding the books, I designed a clamshell box to house the book and also to guide readers. It has a split base so that the individual pages can sit side-by-side or be spread across a table. Designing a box takes a lot of time – I have to consider fit, shape, closure, colour, cloth, grain, flexibility, where the title lives, imagery, and then careful cutting, assembly, sanding, covering, square paste-downs, and resting under weight to avoid warping.
Once a project is done, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. Then I start the process all over again.
How does working with artists who have a different cultural perspective on the same issue change an exhibition, compared to a story told from a single artist's perspective?
Sonia Farmer: No one has the complete story or perspective on something, and I believe art is a tool to shift perspective. Usually that shift is for the viewer, but especially in group shows, it happens between the artists as well. We see how artwork from an artist from a different part of the world joins with your work, or how artists from the same place as you show a different version of a story. The entire collection creates a new meaning from each of the parts.
Graham Fagen: You get the full picture.
You can see the We Suffer to Remain exhibition at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas from 22 March to 29 July 2018 and read more about the Difficult Conversations series.
Find more of our opportunities in the Caribbean and opportunities in the arts.
Graham Fagen's work was commissioned by the British Council for the Venice Biennale in 2015.