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James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective

Like most other gallery enthusiasts, I had been longing to step into such a creative space once again. So, when I heard that my favourite gallery (the Serpentine Gallery) was hosting an exhibition showcasing British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor’s work I eagerly booked tickets to go.

Barnor’s experience living in both Ghana and the UK was displayed through photography, capturing what life was like for British Ghanaians in the early 1950s to late ‘80s. The one-way system created a chronological fluidity of images showcasing different people across Ghana and the UK. 

From comedians clothed in fancy dress to smartly dressed young women posing innocently with a ceramic doll, the artist provides an insight into kind-hearted twentieth century Ghana. However, these vastly contradict the striking black and white images of political rallies across the capital and influential figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, presenting the hunger for independence from British rule that ran through Ghanaian citizens of the time. 

Throughout Barnor’s photos based within Ghana, there was a powerful sense of justice brought by the constant inclusion of the first Ghanaian president and activist for independence, Kwame Nkrumah. At the same time as portraying an inspirational reminder of the peaceful but effective fight for Ghanaian independence, there is a notion of the playful and cooperative relationship between Ghana and the UK after independence. With photos of chiefs entertaining the company of British royals and allowing them to experience traditional festivals, such as the Homowa Festival of the Ga people.

As one moves around the corners of the gallery, they are met with a positive representation of immigration presented through images of new life. Christenings and kids’ parties span the back wall to showcase the next generation of British Ghanaians, those who will settle in the UK and call it home. On the other side of the wall hang photos of traditional Ghanaian festivals and celebrations. A gentle reminder of heritage and a representation of an old homeland across the sea, but not too far away. 

Step further into the Serpentine Gallery and you will discover a video of black and white photos accompanied by a voiceover of Barnor explaining his technique and process. It is here that we realise how in tune the artist is with his clients and models as he asks them to move around in the light in order to capture the best light effect on their face. Particularly as the majority of Barnor’s models were dark-skinned black people, he had to ensure that their complexion would be presented in the best way and thus had to incorporate a lot of natural light. 

Ultimately, my favourite feature of the exhibition had to be the commissions for DRUM Magazine, a newsletter running throughout the late 20th century to showcase black culture. The elegance and style of the models shine through the glass covering as they proudly present their natural hair and West African features to an audience often clouded from representation. Barnor’s exhibition is open until 22nd October, so you have all summer to go explore Barnor’s work and I greatly encourage you to do so. 

Image Credits: James Barnor, Drum Cover Girl, Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966, Courtesy Autograph @autographabp

By Keisha Frimpong

Editor in Chief