James Barnor: Britain in the 1960s

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.

Drum Cover, Nigerian Edition 1967 @james_barnor_archives

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.

Drum cover girl Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966 / Drum cover girl Marie Hallowi, London, 1966 @james_barnor_archives

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.

Guests at the Baptism Ceremony of James Vanderpuije, London, early 1960s / Portrait of the sister of a friend of James Barnor, London, c. 1960 @james_barnor_archives

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.

Friends, Accra, late 1970s / Back to school, Accra, 1970s or 1980s @james_barnor_archives

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

References: 

Campt, Tina M., Image Matters, Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2012

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

Olusoga, David, Black and British, A Forgotten History (Pan Macmillian London), 2017

Ed. Mussai, Renée, James Barnor, Ever Young (Autograph ABP: London) 2015

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

https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/about/press/portraits-for-the-future-a-celebration-of-james-barnor/

A Review: Grace Wales Bonner’s ‘A Time for New Dreams’

Figure 1: Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1), 2012, branded red oak, zebra skin, black soap, wax, rug, courtesy of the artist and @hauserwirth, photo by the author

It is a rare occasion in London – dashing to an exhibition viewing on a Friday morning, knowing full well the minute it finishes you will have to jog (Edina Monsoon, c.1992 style) across Hyde Park and back to your desk before the lunchtime window ends – when a meditative silence mutes the mounting traffic, perpetual hum of voices and underground announcements, and clattering cacophony of horns surging to a swell just metres away.

It is unnerving, and the precious nature of such transportation is achieved through Grace Wales Bonner’s thoughtful reimagining of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s familiar space. Here, an open portal is carved out through which the visitor can travel to #atimefornewdreams. 

Wales Bonner is most predominantly recognised as an innovative British Menswear Designer. A Central St. Martins graduate, her inaugural Autumn/Winter ’15 collection at Fashion East, ‘Ebonics’, received resounding praise and was featured in the V&A’s Fashion in Motion programme. In 2016, she received the LVMH Young Designer Prize and was recently awarded the British Land London Design Medal (2018) – I’m not being fan-girly-gushy when I say that Wales Bonner is a remarkable woman. 

Laraaji, Transformation, 2019, personal objects, ephemera, sound, courtesy of the musician, photo by the author

A Time for New Dreams is a bringing together of multiple interdisciplinary creative practices: music, fashion, art and design. The exhibition effectively functions as an assemblage of works that explore Wales Bonner’s given themes of mysticism and ritual, accompanied by a fascinating constellation of events and happenings. These range from meditation workshops led by musician Laraaji to a live reading by South London composer, playwright and artist Klein. The vast array of objects, artworks, photographs, memorabilia, books and ephemeral flowerpieces collectively provide a rich blend of multisensory stimuli. As you move through the exhibition, you feel the weight of important and varied histories being carefully layered and interwoven in the creation of a shared narrative. 

Left: Grace Wales Bonner at the exhibition’s press view
Right: Kapwani Kiwanga, several works from the series Flowers for Africa, 2014/5, signed protocol by artist including iconographic documents, photos by the author

I have this sense of freedom, some acknowledgement of my ancestors and a history that’s come before. It’s an open space for me to be able to feel quite free in the way that I reference histories or I enter different territories and worlds. I’m always interested in the idea of fluidity and the mixing of references … I always think about is rhythmicality.
—Grace Wales Bonner in conversation with Ishmael Reed

There is gloriously complex and nuanced storytelling present in the curation of A Time for New Dreams—the accompanying publication alone is the stuff of dreams! The contribution of each work to The exhibition’s wider composition prompts contemplation of Wales Bonner’s exploration of the use of shrines and improvisations throughout black histories—the exhibition’s driving force. Two of the artist’s shrines are featured: ‘the exhibition focuses on the shrine as a symbolic pathway for imagining different worlds and possibilities’ (Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams exhibition catalogue, 5). 

Grace Wales Bonner, Shrine I & II 2019, Altar objects, courtesy of the artist, collection of photos by the author

Wales Bonner’s Shrine I  is a direct portal to her intellectual and ancestral lineage. The material included traces certain ideas of brotherhood that have impacted her identity and creative process: the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves’ exhibition catalogue for Theaster Gates’ 2014 The Black Monastic exhibition, a looped video installation that includes footage of Ishmael Reed playing Tadd Dameron’s ‘If You Could See Me Now (2008), a copy of Nigerian poet Ben Okri’s introductory An African Elegy (1992), a treasure trove of Wales Bonner-specific paraphernalia. It is as though Wales Bonner’s Shrine I were a miniature of the wider exhibition, a prototypical maquette that alludes to the exhibition’s portal-like structure: a gallery that has been transformed into a vessel to carry London’s weary to a space-time of alternate worlds and different possibilities.  

Eric N. Mack, Capital Heights (via stretch), 2019, assorted cloth, Spandex, cotton, silk, polyester, rope and straight pins, courtesy of the artist and @simonleegallery, (right) Wales Bonner discussing aesthetic practices during the exhibition’s press view (18 Jan 2019), both photos by the author

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams
19 Jan – 16 Feb 2019, Serpentine Sackler Gallery 
To learn more about it this (sadly) month-long exhibition, go to @serpentineuk / @walesbonner or https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/grace-wales-bonner-time-new-dreams

Sources

Ishmael Reed, ‘Diving into the occult with Grace Wales Bonner and Ishmael Reed’, Interview Magazine, 18/01/2019. Online edition. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/grace-wales-bonner-ishmael-reed-conversation.

Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams, exhib cat., Serpentine Galleries, London.