Icon(ic): Photographer James Barnor
When I first met eighty-two year old photographer James Barnor, we were both being interviewed for the celebrations of fifty years of Ghana’s independence. He as an older creative from Ghana, I as the younger.
I looked through the paper photocopies of photographs that he had brought with him, mounted on large pieces of black card. I saw portraits from the 1940s of a Ghanaian ballroom dancing champion and of one of Ghana’s first female policewomen taken in his Ever Young Studios. I saw pictures of foreign dignitaries and of local market women that came to witness the handover of power to Africa’s first sub-Saharan country to gain its independence from colonial rule. I saw cover shots of young Africans who came to London to study in the 1960s, taken for Drum, the first magazine produced by Africans for an African audience. These pictures filled the gap between the stories my parents told me, and the portrayals to the world of Africans by a largely negative Western media.
I told James Barnor I wanted to do an exhibition of his work and a few months later, the opportunity arose for us to do one at the Black Cultural Archives in London. Only this was somehow not enough. In the seeming absence of us presenting our own stories to the world, others had told them for us, often in ways that were incongruous. I decided I had to write a book on James Barnor and his pictures and through them trace the history of photography and the birth of our nation, to uncover what the images told us about how we have represented ourselves, and our own modernities. James Barnor’s photographs and negatives were under his bed in his apartment, so following the advice of David Adjaye, the Ghanaian architect, I approached Autograph ABP, who agreed to digitize his work and put on a major retrospective last year.
A country is nothing without its history, and yet we do not always honour those that have told and created the stories of our becoming. James Barnor is one of our greatest storytellers and now, the time has come for him to have an exhibition at home in Accra to celebrate him and his work, accompanied by a documentary, and the book.
The story has come full circle, James Barnor, as the older, I as the younger, will together try to tell a history of Ghana that will allow us as Ghanaians, to reflect on ourselves, our provenance and our direction, to reclaim the framing of our own representations, and so to stand stronger in our contribution to the world.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a writer, filmmaker and cultural historian. She did an MA in African Art History and is completing a PhD in African Languages and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She has curated and lectured at institutions, like the Universities of Oxford and London and The Victoria and Albert Museum; written for publications like The National Geographic, The Statesman, frieze Magazine and Arise; and her films have been shown at festivals, like the Milan African Film Festival and The Real Life Documentary Film Festival
If you want to support the project (e.g. invest, in-kind, technical expertise, broadcast, put on a concert, print a James Barnor T-shirt or kaba and top, have photographic workshops for children, host a radio or TV discussion on, e.g., the question of historical representation or the importance of the photographic document or in any other way actively participate), please email: firstname.lastname@example.org