A litany of names is projected on the outside walls of Edinburgh’s City Chambers: “Mariatu, Jalevina, Adama, Tennah, Fatima …” Unlike the names of the white merchants commemorated by the city’s statues and streets, these black ancestors of musician Kayus Bankole have been lost to time. Now, as part of Message from the Skies, five literary installations running until Burns Night, the Young Fathers vocalist is reciting their forgotten names like an incantation. This, at the former Royal Exchange built from the wealth of colonial exploitation two decades before Scotland banned slave ownership.
Bankole’s purpose, he says, as his face distorts in the watery visuals of film-maker Rianne White, is not to accuse his fellow citizens of racism or blame them for the sins of their forebears, but to acknowledge the way we are all shaped by the past. “Speaking honestly about our history will give us a better sense of belonging to each other,” he says.
At the top of Calton Hill, we find another litany: “Mingulay, Pabbay, Sandray, Vatersay, Eriskay …” These Hebridean island names also have an incantatory quality, this time as poet Robin Robertson evokes the country’s coast. In a piece called Ten Thousand Miles of Edge, his words are accompanied by a whirlpool of images by Susanna Murphy and Cristina Spiteri dramatically washing over the Nelson Monument. It feels like a prayer to an island nation.
Taking the lead from Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, all five pieces look outwards to the sea, with its threats, connections and unknowable depths. Where Kathleen Jamie finds unlikely romance in wave-energy convertors, Irvine Welsh attributes his wanderlust to a formative encounter with an old sea dog in Leith.
None does it more exquisitely than Charlotte Runcie’s Lightkeepers, projected on to the front of the Northern Lighthouse Board in George Street, its distinctive miniature lighthouse incorporated into Kate Charter’s pulsating animations. Narrated and sung by Karine Polwart, with a suitably gusty soundtrack by Pippa Murphy, it sees those beacons of light in the darkness as a metaphor for hope during the perilous journeys of life. It leaves us with a reassuring midwinter refrain: “And light has a way of returning.”
At various venues, Edinburgh, until 25 January.