Mai Screen  Shot 2015 11 19 At 16 34 55


In early 2015, the curatorial project Mother Tongue undertook a residency with the Fresh Milk Art Platform in Barbados. Encountering the work of Stacey Tyrell in the first few days of the residency, her images – especially ‘Mara, 17 yrs.’ – stayed with me for the duration of the trip. They came to represent for me the clashes, in geography and history, between Scotland, the Caribbean, the past, present, and journeys made. ­­At times, such clashes were as simple as my double-take at road signs for ‘Dalkeith’ and ‘Montrose’ as we drove swiftly past. At other times, it was more subtle, listening in to the Barbadian accent, knowing (but not being able to pinpoint) something recognisable.

The most striking insights were to not only understand further Scotland’s involvement in the Caribbean through histories of slavery and colonialism, but to understand how the Caribbean region views Scotland and its proximity to one another in entangled pasts. What I mean to say is perhaps the Caribbean region feels closer to Scotland than we have understood historically ourselves to be.

Stacey Tyrell’s work points pertinently to questions around ‘Scottishness’ and the meaning that description holds. To coincide with the first exhibition of her work in Scotland at the Pig Rock Bothy, Modern One, National Galleries of Scotland, two writings are published by MAP. The essay by Glasgow-based musician and writer Cassie Ezeji, can be found on MAP under the title ‘Whose Gaelic is it Anyway?’. It discusses her experience as a person of colour and fluent Gaelic speaker in Scotland: a language Ezeji identifies as her own but which has no terminology to describe her roots and identity. This writing has been commissioned for the Bothy exhibition as a local anchor and mirror to the questions posed by Tyrell’s work. The essay below is written by curator Tiffany Boyle for Mother Tongue. This examines the work of Stacey Tyrell alongside Graham Fagen’s presentation for the Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2015.


Following the Olive Blossom’s landing in 1625, Barbados was claimed as a possession of England. It would later become a British colony, despite the English not being the first nation to visit its shores. Until independence in 1966, it was—unlike other colonies in the Caribbean—under continuous British rule. Still often referred to as ‘Little England,’ Barbados is twenty-one miles long, fourteen miles wide, and—as a legacy of the influence of the Church of England—divided into eleven parishes, the majority of these named after saints. St. Andrew—the patron saint of both Scotland and Barbados—is a parish to the northeast of the island, its coast clashing with the strong currents of the Atlantic Ocean. The British colonisers considered the district, in its hues and undulations, to resemble the hills and fields of Scotland and it remains known today as the ‘Scottish’ district. Yet more direct links with Scotland are to be found in the place names and surnames on the island; Arthur’s Seat, Montrose and Callendar; and Campbell, Innis, McIntosh, and Ramsay, respectively.

Bathsheba, St. Andrews, Barbados. Photo credit Jessica Carden
Bathsheba, St. Andrews, Barbados. Photo credit Jessica Carden

Between January and February, as part of the curatorial project Mother Tongue, I undertook a research residency with the Fresh Milk Art Platform, in St. George, Barbados. A number of days in the first week were spent in the reading room in an attempt to grasp at the local art history and contemporary art of the island and its Caribbean neighbours. On one of these days, I turned the page of a book to come across an image staring back at me of a woman wearing full Highland dress, as associated with Highland dancing: white blouse, kilt, a green velvet waistcoat, with a shaped basque and the regulation five Scottish ornamental buttons on each side. Her forearms are bare, coloured that milky, almost transparent tone associated with northern skin. Set against a dark background, her pose is athletic, a defiance in her green eyes almost matching the dark emerald green of the velvet. Wearing such an outfit is always a performative act, but here it is such a gesture twice-over. Immediately, despite the recognisable outfit, there is something off, something perplexing, about this expressionless portrait. The straight red hair of her wig is the first clue, alongside something discernibly artificial, doll-like and racially ambiguous in her facial features.

Left: Stacey Tyrell, ‘Mara, 17 yrs.’, C-print, 2011. Right: Stacey Tyrell, ‘Inghinn, 20 yrs.’, C-print, 2012

At this exact moment I—as a Scottish woman, curator and visitor for the first time in Barbados and the wider region—was trying to understand something about Caribbeanness, my gaze was returned by this image and the artists’ direct eye contact. The photograph is titled ‘Mara, 17 yrs.’, and forms part of artist Stacey Tyrell’s 2011-2013 series, Backra Bluid . ‘Backra’ is a term of West-African origin, used to refer to a white person, particularly one in a position of authority and commonly used during Caribbean slavery to describe the slave master or driver. ‘Bluid’ meanwhile is the Scots word for blood, used by extension to describe family ties and kinship. Throughout this series, Tyrell uses her own body, modifications, posture and dress to put forth questions about the Scottish men in her Caribbean ancestry. When raised verbally and in public, the artist has found her images to cause discomfort in their stark reminder of Caribbean colonialism and slavery. Using layers of make-up to create a white complexion is a complex gesture, one that creates emotional responses, further amplified by her use of photography to make small tweaks and augmentations to her features, such as thinning her nose.

Of the series, ‘Mara, 17 yrs.’ and ‘Inghinn, 20yrs.’ are the most blatantly Scottish-in-inverted-commas, although tartan makes a repeated appearance throughout the series. In ‘Inghinn, 20yrs.’Tyrell is seated, dressed in the same white blouse, with a Glengarry cap, tartan sash and kilt. Her blond bob, blue eyes and thinner face meet us head on, her hands clasped, full of tension, on her lap. Viewed as a series, it becomes quickly obvious that the sitter is one and the same, and in this sense, their power as images lies in a more solitary consideration. Of the series and her own biography as an artist of Nevisian heritage, who grew up in Canada, Tyrell describes:

As a black child attending a predominantly white school, there were

occasions when I would listen to my classmates proudly lay claim to

their Scottish, Irish and English heritage, whilst I would silently

acknowledge my own. In many parts of my family on both sides,

you will find many men from Scotland, England and Ireland…

The images in the series are an attempt to interpret and explore

these white relatives from both past and present.’ [1]

Fixed ideas of the physical appearance of both Scottish and Caribbean people is part of the disjuncture, and the series attempts to extricate this, to pinpoint the hybridity of ‘the majority of peoples in post-colonial society.’ [2] Barbados has been home to one of the oldest and continuous sugar cane breeding programmes in the world, the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station. The station was set up in 1888 after a worker, in 1858, discovered the ability of sugar cane to reproduce from true seed produced by the cross pollination of different plants, creating new varieties. Sugar cane is genetically more complex than human beings; while we have 23:23 chromosomes, for a total of 46, sugar cane typically has a total of around 100, but can have as many as 130. Further, it is the product of the hybridisation of two separate species. Its roots—although underground and not readily visible—are complex in structure; multiple and elaborate. This intermixing, across varieties of sugar cane and between people of different colours including Scots, has been a part of the Caribbean everyday for hundreds of years, as Backra Bluid quietly reminds us. The same tacit touch is embedded in Tyrell’s Chattel series, documenting Scottish-produced machinery for refining industrial sugar cane, discarded, strewn and rusting away in the humid climate of her island nation Nevis. The lack of physical presence in these photographs is haunted by the knowledge of those who built and transported such machinery, vis-à-vis those who were forced to work at its wheels and cogs.

Left: Graham Fagen, ‘West Coast Looking West (Atlantic)’, colour photograph, 2006 Right: Graham Fagen, ‘East Coast Looking East (Caribbean)’, colour photograph, 2007

The meeting of gazes I refer to earlier, from Scotland looking south-west and the Caribbean looking north-east, I hope to act as the navigational compass here, as I draw a line between the work of Tyrell and Graham Fagen’s presentation for the Scottish Pavilion at the Palazzo Fontana, as part of the Venice Biennale, 2015. Additionally, in addressing Fagen’s body of work for Venice, I wish to annotate and insert recollections, memories, flashes of conversation and anecdotes from Barbados which permeated my experience of his work in the four rooms of the Palazzo. In fact, this longitude has already been drawn by two works pre-dating Fagen’s work for Venice, and which, I propose, encapsulate the core of his substantial research into the links between Robert Burns, slavery, Scotland and the Caribbean. ‘West Coast Looking West (Atlantic)’,2006, and ‘East Coast Looking East (Caribbean)’, 2007, each look out to the Atlantic from the coast, in the aforementioned directions of south-west and north-east. The significance of this work, and the full circle it presents, took until now to fall into place, the most important aspect of it being that it is not one-directional; the work looks back at Scotland and brings into the fold how others see Scotland.

Fagen’s work investigates Robert Burn’s three planned passages to Jamaica and the links formed between Scotland and the Caribbean as a result of slavery. This research is expressed in his video work through dub reggae. However, Barbados’ musical legacy is that of calypso and spouge, with one of its most famous proponents coming to mind as I entered the Palazzo, to be met in the first room by ‘Rope Tree’. Often using a pseudonym, calypsonians, their music and lyrics held a role similar to the griot within the Caribbean nations in which the genre is present: a folklorist, cultural activist, a mouthpiece of the populations’ view of current political affairs and an oral historian. The Mighty Gabby, born Anthony Carter in 1948, is a prolific Barbadian calypsonian, who in 1982 won the Crop Over Road March Title with the controversial song ‘Jack (Dah Beach is Mine)’. Ninety seconds into the track, a verse begins:

Tourism vital / I can’t deny/ But can’t mean more / Than I and I,

My navel string / Buried right ‘ere / But the tourist one / Could be


This phrase ‘I and I’ was also used by Fagen in his 2010 commissioned commemorative plaques for St. Agnes Park, Bristol. Although Mighty Gabby was a calypsonian, ‘I and I’ was a term from the 1970’s onwards widely used within the Rastafarian and Black resistance movements, [3] highlighting both a connection to God, the connection between body and spirit, but also to demonstrate the equality and commonality of all under God.

In the Caribbean islands, historically under British colonial rule, it was typical that the beaches were part of the commons and freely accessible to all citizens. However, the possibility of private and commercial infringements on this and the actions of the then-chairman of the Barbados Tourist Board, Jack Dear, is to whom Mighty Gabby levels his charges. The phrase ‘my navel string buried here’ refers to the traditional practice following home births, to burying the umbilical cord in the back garden of the family home, usually under a banana or coconut palm tree. With the move away from home births came the decline of the practice, but the use of the phrase in its contemporary manifestation carries a meaning more akin to ‘I am Barbadian by birth.’ As chemist Dr. Anthony Richards notes, ‘reading the landscape requires that you recognise such trees, where they exist, and where they do not.’ [4]

‘Rope Tree’, installed in the first room of the Palazzo, reaches out to the walls either side in a vine-like crawl. The architectural features of the Palazzo are grand, its hues in tune with the period style we associate with buildings raised on the spoils of colonialism. There is a tension in the tree and its branches, cast in bronze, like rope unravelling but standing so rigidly. As the soundtrack to ‘The Slave’s Lament’ reverberated around the Palazzo walls, my orientation of the work was blurred by this anecdote of the navel string, as if it had blossomed, burst through the marble floor, reaching upwards and outwards towards the sun. Of course, rope in the context of the exhibition carries with its so many other connotations, all of them dark. The etymological slippage in spelling not disconnected here, these undertones include naval history, knots, restraining a prisoner and the hangman’s noose, all looming large overhead. The rope used to produce the cast for ‘Rope Tree’ was made of coir, a fibre made from coconut husk and used since ancient times in ship ropes and for naval rigging: a final loop in the working end of the ideas and histories converging in physical form here.

Graham Fagen, Rope Tree, Installation View, Palazzo Fontana, Bronze, 2015
Graham Fagen, ‘Rope Tree’, Installation View, Palazzo Fontana, Bronze, 2015

The work within the next two rooms of the Palazzo, ‘Scheme for Lament’ and ‘Scheme for Our Nature’, are overtaken by Fagen’s drawings, casts and sculptural installations; all departing from an exploration of teeth and our sensory perceptions of the space within the mouth. The drawings and casts on show in Venice have their origins in works from 2011, such as ‘Our Shared, Common, Private Space’, 2011, ‘Heavy Manners’, 2011, and ‘Clean Hands Pure Heart’, 2006. Fagen here references the use of teeth as a marker of health, when slave owners would come to auction, intrusively opening, prodding and peering into the mouth of those for sale for signs of ill-health and age. The previous exhibition presentation of ‘Our Shared, Common, Private Space’ borrows from the display of the sole surviving set of dentures used by George Washington, held in the collection of Mount Vernon, the plantation he and his family owned throughout his lifetime, with 318 slaves onsite at the time of his death in in 1799.

It is—rather than serendipitous, in complete correlation here—the only country George Washington travelled to in his lifetime outwith what was to become the United States of America was Barbados. He visited in 1751, at the age of 19, with his half-brother Lawrence, who was seriously ill at the time from tuberculosis which would cause his death the next year. Barbados, as ‘Little England’, used their lead in global sugar production by the mid-1600s as leverage to achieve a degree of local autonomy from English governmental rule. Washington studied this constitution during his stay on the island, informing his later role in the development of the American constitution and the 1787 Constitutional Convention. George Washington himself was at the time of his sailing ill with smallpox, from which he recovered, thus becoming immune to further bouts. However, he was to suffer from life-long afflictions with his teeth, the treatment of which was to eventually result in scarring to his face and the deformation of his facial features. It has been a widespread myth that his dentures were made of wood, when in fact human teeth, lead, cow teeth and elephant ivory were used. He saved some of his original teeth in the hope that these could be inserted into subsequent dentures, but also notes in one of his account books his purchase of nine African-American teeth, at a total cost of 122 shillings, [5] a practice not uncommon in the 18th century.

We associate teeth with the skeleton although they are not technically a part of our frame; their tissue different to bone, and harder. Often during archaeological digs, finding teeth is the first clue of human remains at the site. DNA and forensic analysis likewise often use teeth and dental records as a means to identify. On a walking conversation in the city centre of Bridgetown, Dr. Richards took a diversion from our focus on the traditional medical uses and cultural significance of Barbadian flora and fauna, the vast majority of which is not indigenous but imported during colonialism to present a “tamed” image of the colonies. Walking down a narrow alley, we arrived at an empty car park of uneven grey, concrete surface, surrounded by derelict wooden warehouses and the back end of retail units. The Pierhead site at which we stood was the location of the old docks; the screw dock where boats came to be fixed still semi-functioning, and where in times of 20th century migration between Barbados and Europe undertaken by boat, people would arrive and depart. But buried here underground, long before these journeys took place, and without signage, lies a mass grave of slaves, similar in formation to others found in Brazil and South Africa. Slaves who became seriously ill or died during the Middle Passage sailing would normally be thrown overboard, as would potential “troublemakers.” However, when the boat reached a certain distance to its destination, these bodies would no longer be thrown overboard to avoid them washing up on shore. Instead they would be buried quickly and en masse upon landing at the port. An archaeological dig was undertaken at the Pierhead site in the early 2000s, when construction workers uncovered bones whilst constructing the car park. Skulls and skeletons were found, some lying with distinguishing items such as clay pipes, and a rum libation was poured.

In Fagen’s studio, as I hold an earlier cast of the artist’s teeth, their tactility makes me uneasy: at the coldness of the material, painted black and gold, and in its weight. There is eeriness to the teeth singled out as a document like this, and returning to works such as ‘Clean Hands Pure Heart’, in their revelation through a Cheshire-cat like grin. However, there are two sides to the artists’ use of teeth and our multifarious understandings of them. Fagen highlights that we use teeth as part of our vocal communications with one another, and that regardless of all other factors, they are something we all possess:

I had this nice thought that—black, white, gay, straight, able, disabled—

teeth belong to all of us… They’re completely common to every person

alive and to every person dead, but at the same time they’re absolutely

unique. [6]

Left: Graham Fagen, ‘Our Shared, Common, Private Space’, Ebony, bronze and enamel, 2011 Right: Graham Fagen, ‘Heavy Manners’, video still, HD video projection, 2011

Lastly, we arrive at the musical source of the exhibition in the final room, the third screen of the five-channel video installation dedicated to reggae singer Ghetto Priest, with frequent and prolonged close-up camera shots of his mouth as he sings the lyrical verses of Robert Burns. By reaching this work, the audience realises that they will have to retrace their own steps to exit, experiencing the show in its reverse, layers of meaning accruing as they do. Evolving out of ‘Downpresserer’2007, and ‘I Murder Hate’, 2009, Burn’s poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’ is for the first time set and sang to both reggae rhythms and voices, and a composition scored by Sally Beamish with musicians from Scottish Ensemble. The local contribution is not ‘Scottish’ in a pipes and drums manner, but steeped in classical and folk musical traditions. The composition is a harmonising of tempo and form, purposefully alternating between the Scottish and Jamaican voices bringing into being. The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s re-scoring of (the more widely known) ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ is described by the artist as being a revelation, in its detaching of the sentimentalism and kitsch that (we) have attached to this particular Burn’s song. Furthermore, it was significant to Fagen that this remodelling of the popular song was created by an individual in many ways alien to Scottish culture and its tangled relationship to the usual suspects laid forth as its cultural tradition and heritage.

Tyrell’s use of Highland dress is a similar act; a costume so overlaid in meaning, experience and weight that it would be impossibly difficult in many senses for an artist living and working in Scotland to deconstruct its seams. The impetus behind this writing is my own questioning of why I cannot separate my thinking around these two bodies of work produced by Fagen and Tyrell. These works exist in my mind as being in a cross-Atlantic dialogue with one another. They cover different ground and in many ways are in contrast to one another: the force of Tyrell’s work is in eye contact, Fagen’s in the speaking of words. The Backra Bluid series is mute, ‘The Slave’s Lament’a song set to a beating pulse and spilling out rhyme. However, in both works, the artists seek to make visible narratives and heritage previously rendered invisible. In emphasising and making public the cultural connectedness of Scotland and Caribbean, the supposed differences I identity of these cultures and citizens is minimalised. As Tyrell explains, through her whitening, dress and modifications, she wishes to demonstrate to the viewer that if they were to take a closer look at her face that ‘it might not be that much different from their own.’ [7] In Fagen’s use of teeth as a motif and in the marriage of reggae and Burns poetry, there is this same humanity and universalism. The work of both Fagen and Tyrell are carefully distilled statements, drawing on multi-faceted bodies of research and complex histories. They ask us to step for a moment outside of ourselves, and to see and understand us as others do.

Tiffany Boyle, writing for Mother Tongue

The work of Stacey Tyrell discussed in his article will be exhibited at the Pig Rock Bothy, at Modern One, National Galleries of Scotland, from 20 November until 6 December 2015.

This essay is published by MAP alongside “Whose Gaelic is it anyway?’ Identity and Perception, a short essay by Glasgow musician Cassie Ezeji. With thanks to Julie-Ann Delany, Mairi Lafferty and Claire Walsh of the National Galleries of Scotland.

With thanks to: Graham Fagen, Stacey Tyrell, Annalee Davis and Katherine Kennedy of the Fresh Milk Art Platform, Dr Anthony Richards, Dr. Anthony Kennedy, Director of the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station Barbados, and HE Guy Hewitt.

[1] Stacey Tyrell, Artist Statement, Backra Bluid series:
[2] Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, The Trouble With Teeth :
[3] Welsh and Graham Fagen in conversation 21 November 2014, in: Scotland + Venice : Graham Fagen Palazzo Fontana May 9-Nov 22 2015, Graham Fagen, Hospitalfield: Arbroath, 2015, pg. 34
[4] Ian Walcott-Skinner, The Mighty Gabby: Embodying Resistance in the Creative Process: Analysis of text and performance – Jack, Culture and Wuk Up (1981-2000), conference paper, ‘Talking Culture’ Symposium, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, 2014:
[5] In personal correspondence with author.
[6] & [7] Stacey Tyrell, Artist Statement, Backra Bluid series, Available: