MASI Lugano presented the largest retrospective ever devoted to the photographer James Barnor, on show now until 31 of July. Throughout his lengthy career, spanning six decades and two continents, Barnor has been an extraordinary visual witness to the social and political changes of his time – from the independence of Ghana to the African diaspora and the lives of London’s African community. With his candid, spontaneous gaze, the Ghanaian-British photographer has navigated different places, cultures, and genres, from photojournalism and social documentary to studio portraiture and fashion and lifestyle work. Although he has influenced generations of photographers in Africa and around the world, his work has only recently been rediscovered and valued.
James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective presents a selection of over 200 works from Barnor’s vast personal archive, including numerous previously unpublished images. Whether family photos, commissioned portraits or commercial assignments, Barnor’s exceptional ability to convey official and personal histories in the terms of an intimate dialogue, encounters based on a human connection, shines through.
In addition to vintage photographs, reprints and original documents, the show also presents magazine covers and record sleeves, and focuses in particular on the decades 1950-1980. It unfolds in the historic rooms of the Palazzo Reali as a chronological journey through the key periods in Barnor’s life and work – from the early days in Accra, with his “Ever Young” studio, to his years in London; from his first colour photographs to his collaboration with the anti-apartheid magazine “Drum” and his passion for music and the performing arts.
The exhibition also includes a video by Campbell Addy of Barnor introducing his work, and another in which he explains his photographic technique.
After being presented at the Serpentine Galleries in London (19.05-24.10.2021), and MASI Lugano, the show will travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Spring 2023), with the aim of raising the profile of a photographer whose work has had a major artistic and social impact.
Presented in collaboration with Serpentine, London. “James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective” is initiated and organised by Serpentine, London. Curated by Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Chief Curator, Serpentine and Awa Konaté: Culture Art Society (CAS), Assistant Curator. Organised in collaboration with Clémentine de la Féronnière, Isabella Seniuta and Sophie Culière, James Barnor Archives.
James Barnor: Accra / London – A Retrospective is accompanied by a catalogue published by König and co-produced by the Serpentine Galleries of London, MASI Lugano and Detroit Institute of Arts. Designed and illustrated by Mark El-khatib, it includes texts by Christine Barthe, Sir David Adjaye OBE, David Hartt, Alicia Knock and Erlin Ibreck, and a conversation between James Barnor and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The publication is in English.
About the Author
Born in 1929 in Accra, Ghana, Barnor came from a family of photographers. He initially trained under a photographic apprenticeship with his cousin J. P. D. Dodoo, before establishing Ever Young, his first studio, in the early 1950s. Barnor likened Ever Young to a community centre, and it was there that he captured a nation on the cusp of independence in an environment of lively conversation and music. During this time, he also undertook assignments for the Daily Graphic newspaper, owned by the Mirror Group, documenting key events and figures in the leadup to Ghana’s independence in 1957, which established him as the first photojournalist in the country.
Enticed by a friend’s promise that ‘London was the place for him’, Barnor arrived in London in December 1959 and spent the next decade furthering his studies, continuing assignments for the influential South African magazine Drum, and photographing his ever growing circle of family and friends. He returned to Accra a decade later to establish the first colour-processing laboratory in Ghana. Barnor settled permanently in the UK in 1994 and now lives in West London. Central to Barnor’s work is the intimate documentation of African and Afro-diasporic lives across time and space. Whether taking family snapshots, commissioned portraits or commercial assignments, Barnor approaches the photographic process as a collaborative venture, a conversation with the sitter, and these images are a testament to a lifetime of encounters. Barnor’s desire to bring communities with him along his journey extends to his lifelong passion for education, not just as a means of furthering his own skills but also as a way of transmitting his knowledge to others. The recent digitisation of his archive of 32,000 images has enabled him to adopt the daily practice of revisiting his pictures with fresh eyes and memories to share his extraordinary life and work with a new generation.