After being shut for months due to lockdown, galleries in the UK have finally reopened their doors to visitors. Amongst a plethora of ‘must-see’ shows, the Serpentine Gallery’s highly anticipated James Barnor retrospective is opening to the public this Thursday. Exhibiting a selection of iconic images taken by the Ghanaian photographer during his six-decade career, it aims to highlight his role as a pioneering figure within modern photography.
Now ninety-two and living in the UK, Barnor recalls how he crossed continents and genres to further his knowledge of photography. As a studio photographer and photojournalist, he captured Ghana on the cusp of independence in the 1950s. He later introduced colour photography to the nation in the 1970s. In between these two pivotal chapters of his career, he moved to London, where he documented the city’s transformation into a multicultural metropolis in the post-war era. Working as a documentary and fashion photographer, he harnessed the power of photography to illuminate the multidimensionality of Black experience in Britain in the 1960s.
In order to comprehend the power of Barnor’s images and his skill as a photographer, it is important to first understand the complex time he was living in. During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was experiencing a wave of post-war migration as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted people in the Commonwealth full rights to British Citizenship. Whilst this marked a watershed moment in the formation of Black Britain, it was also a dark chapter in the nation’s history with racism inherent in the media, politics and society-at-large. This racial intolerance culminated in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, during which Black people were targeted in violent attacks by white mobs. In the political sphere, various acts were introduced throughout the 1960s which aimed to limit citizenship rights. It was against this backdrop that Barnor worked as a photographer, producing images which were not overtly politically or racially charged in nature, yet prove incredibly impactful given the socio-political landscape of the period.
Commissioned by Drum, the South African Anti-Apartheid journal, he photographed Black models engaging with the latest fashions in the streets of London. These were circulated internationally and have come to be known as pioneering images of Black beauty. Presenting a multi-national cohort of Black women against iconic British backdrops such as post boxes, telephone boxes and Underground signs, he visually manifested the merging of different cultures in post-war Britain. Whether he was photographing Erlin Ibreck leaning against a Jaguar in Kilburn, Marie Hallowi feeding birds in Trafalgar Square, or Mike Eghan leaping off the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, Barnor aimed to capture his subject’s essence and individuality at a time when Black Britain was triumphantly coming into being against a challenging socio-political backdrop.
Barnor also photographed his friend’s weddings, christenings and parties. Taken for family albums, these documentary images were intended not for public consumption nor to make a political statement about racism or marginality, but rather to capture key milestones within the multicultural communities which were emerging in Britain at this time. Style was a tool of social and cultural transformation for Barnor’s subjects. Inspired by various factors such as Western culture, urban dress, group identity, African style and gender ideals, they harnessed the communicative power of clothing to visually manifest their own perspective of what constituted being Black and British at that time. Meticulously dressed, they exude a sense of joy and self-assurance as they become part of the social fabric of multicultural Britain.
Barnor’s images of London make up the second of three sections at the Serpentine exhibition. The first section is dedicated to portraits he took in his studio, EverYoung, in Accra during the 1950s, as well as his journalistic photographs of Ghanaian independence. The third and final section is made up of colour photographs taken in post-colonial Ghana on his return from Britain in the 1970s. What unites these three sections is a sense of joy and community. Barnor saw photography as a collaborative venture between the photographer and subject, which created a sense of intimacy. His images of both Ghana and Britain are powerful visual testaments of societies in transition during the latter half of the twentieth century.
By Violet Caldecott
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Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, 1990, in Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Stuart Hall (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2021
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Park, Rianna Jade, How James Barnor’s Photographs Became Symbols of Black Glamour, Aperture, issue 242, New York, March 2021 (Aperture Foundation Inc: London) 2021