James Barnor, ever young
Riason Naidoo talks to the curator and editor of a book and traveling exhibition about the work of the legendary, 90 year-old Ghanaian photographer.
- Interview by
- Riason Naidoo
In October 2010, I was one of seven African curators invited by the Tate Modern in London to talk about our recent exhibitions. During those few days we visited, as a group, Autograph at Rivington Place, then showing the photographic exhibition James Barnor: Ever Young. I was struck by this exhibition: the conceptualization, the history contained in the images, the power of the photography and of the curating, the beauty of and in the images, the finesse of the printing and the overall installation. A few months later, in 2011, I organized to show the exhibition at the South African National Gallery (SANG)—in partnership with Autograph and with the assistance of the British Council—where I was director at the time. It was the first tour of the exhibition following the inaugural Autograph show and significantly, the first—and perhaps only—to the African continent thus far. James Barnor attended the opening at the SANG and was so excited to see his images displayed abroad, he paid his own way from London to Cape Town to be there again for the closing week of the show a few months later.
Fast-forward seven years and guess who I ran into at the 2018 Paris Photo last year, and then in June this year as a fellow resident artist at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris? Why, none other than the same master photographer James Barnor! I caught up with the legendary Ghanaian photographer on the occasion of his 90th birthday celebrations and his latest solo exhibition entitled Colors then running at Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière in Paris.
Barnor filled me in on his rags to riches story: the exhibition Steve Flynn and Rachel Pepper were involved in organizing at the Acton Arts Festival in 2004 via the Acton Arts Forum; his subsequent inclusion in the exhibition Ghana at 50 curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in London in 2007; and following that the meeting between curator Renée Mussai and himself that led to his first major solo entitled Ever Young: James Barnor at Autograph, London in the autumn of 2010, which also doubled as his retrospective exhibition, touring internationally since.
The Autograph show set the standard and art professionals, institutions and collectors started to take notice of Barnor’s work with the exhibition travelling to Cape Town; the Impressions Gallery in Bradford in the United Kingdom (2013); Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris (2015); Stony Island Art Bank, Chicago, USA (2016); Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue (BAND), Toronto, Canada (2016); The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA (2016). This was after a smaller iteration exhibition preview at Harvard University’s Rudenstine Gallery in 2010, a few months prior to the opening at Autograph. As a result Barnor’s work has since been acquired by international private and public collections in the United Kingdom such as the Eric and Louise Franck Collection (now at Tate Britain), Government Art Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery in the UK, as well as further afield including the Wedge Collection (Canada) and Musée du quai Branly (France), etc.
Barnor’s photographs were first formally displayed in Ghana in an exhibition at the British Council and Silverbird Lounge, Accra Mall (2012). Since then his pictures have been included in group exhibitions on photography held at Nasher Museum, Duke University, USA (2012); Tate Britain, England (2012); Tropenmuseum, Netherlands (2014) and in 2015 at The Photographers’ Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Foam Fotographiemuseum, (Netherlands).
Since his gallery Clémentine de la Féronnière showed Ever Young: James Barnor in Paris (2015) in partnership with Autograph, it has been busy days with Barnor’s work presented at the 11th biennale des Rencontres de Bamako, Mali (2017), Musée du quai Branly, vitrine jardin, Paris, France (2017-18), Mupho Musée de la Photographie, Saint Louis, Sénégal and Gallery 1957, Kempinski Hotel, Accra, Ghana, the latter two in 2018.
The interview is based on a spontaneous “stream of consciousness” (her words) via on-going email conversations since June 2019 with Renée Mussai.
What was it like to see James Barnor’s work for the first time?
James Barnor first approached my colleague Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph, many many years ago when he knocked on the door of our office, introducing himself and hinting at his archive of photographs – but as I understand never returning with actual images! The writer, artist and curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim then kindly re-introduced us to James in early 2009, if I remember correctly, after she had organized an exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives for Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence in 2007, showing a selection of existing prints from Barnor’s archives. At this time, we were in the middle of a Heritage Lottery-funded archive program at Autograph, with the mission to promote and preserve the work of key—and often unrecognized—artists working in photography and cultural identity politics, so the timing was perfect.
Encountering a treasure trove of negatives, vintage prints, and transparencies reflecting the breadth of his practice spanning sixty years in a seemingly “ordinary” apartment suite in the Elderly People’s Home in Brentford, where James Barnor still resides today, was overwhelming and humbling … in many ways a dream come true for a curator with a vested interest in the archive: such incredibly fascinating history, and culture, stored in an array of Tupperware [food containers], plastic bags, cardboard boxes, often still inside original transparent or brown paper negative pouches, with hand-written notes to contextualize and—importantly—James’ voice and remarkable memory to give meaning and context to it all … That day was a great moment, and one I will always be grateful for—to both James, for his work and his trust, and Nana, for the introduction that opened the door to a fruitful, long-term collaboration with the artist.
Over the past decade, and intensively between 2009-2011, I—as well as colleagues working in the team—have spent many, many hours listening to James’ stories, his transatlantic journeys, while researching his extensive archive of photographs … It’s been a pleasure and a privilege. As you know, and anyone who has met James knows, he is an endlessly fascinating person: he epitomizes “(for)ever young” perfectly, and poignantly.
What was going through your mind?
Joy, curiosity and the overwhelming sense that everything we had set out to do towards the development of this new archive that holds our permanent collection —a photography research program focused on showcasing post-war culturally diverse photography and different “missing chapters”— was coming together: the main objective and stated mission of the archive program I was leading at the time was to ensure that important but often overlooked practitioners like James Barnor and their crucial contribution to the cultural/global history of photography are not forgotten. The intention was to advocate for their practice to be recognized as key “chapters” missing from the wider narratives: re-introduced into mainstream, for lack of a better word, cultural histories of art or photography as well as the collections of major institutions who can ensure the legacies of the work long term.
As I researched James Barnor’s archive, which was later temporarily relocated to Autograph, I was amazed to find ten-thousands of negatives—many still in their original Kodak sleeves, unopened since the 1950s and 60s when they were originally produced—and even more so amazed to see that the work he produced for Drum magazine was in fact shot in London, featuring a multinational host of aspiring black cover models, to then be redistributed on the continent …
This was an archive of images that capture individually, and more so collectively, cultures in transformation, new identities coming into being in post war, pre- and post colonial contexts —both “here” e.g. UK and “there” e.g. Ghana—brilliantly illustrating the fragmented experience of migration, of modernity, of diaspora formation, the shaping of cosmopolitan, modern societies and selves, of social mobility, and changing representation of blackness, desire and beauty across time and cultures … I personally do not know of any other African studio photographer from that period who left the continent to practise abroad—professionally, as well as to study—whose camera captures such a diverse range of people and moments, in and outside the studio confines, and whose work travels—spans continent—in the way James’ photography does.
A majority of the images that I eventually selected for the exhibition had not been seen before, in a curated exhibition—the original film stock, untouched for decades, was digitally preserved first, then later printed from restored negatives and transparencies. Our curatorial objective was to build a show that spoke to different chrono-political and transcultural moments: the “here” and “there” in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, as mentioned earlier … to create a curatorial dialogue across time and place. Part of this story was to highlight Barnor’s own extraordinary transatlantic journey, and how that impacts on and cross-pollinated, if you will, his practice: after a decade of practicing and studying in the UK, he returned to Ghana with the gift of color photography in the early 1970s, opening one of the first—if not the first—color processing laboratories in Accra … So, one of the things that always struck me was how his archive speaks not only of the journey of the photographer, but also to the journey of the medium of photography itself, as it evolves and expands across the world.
Can you take me through the process from that first moment of meeting James to the exhibition at Autograph? (Please, if you can, also describe the technical details of digitization of slides, printing, storage, etc.)
I first met James a few months before his 80th birthday, and on his birthday, I told him that we had just secured the first of many exhibitions to come: at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was over the moon … I remember him telling me that “for someone with no secondary school education or A-levels”—his words!—“this was quite something …” The exhibition opened there in the spring of 2010, as a prelude to the retrospective at Autograph later that same year. At Rivington Place his work was shown [in the main gallery space on the ground floor] alongside a display of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Paris Albums 1900 [displayed in the smaller space upstairs], to open a conversation between photography and the politics of representation 110 years apart. At Harvard, we also held an exhibition-opening symposium on photography and diaspora, which I had the pleasure to moderate, with key figures in the curatorial and scholarly field: the late Okwui Enwezor, Deborah Willis, and Kobena Mercer … I believe it may be online somewhere?
During this period—every time James Barnor came to visit us at Autograph, he was laughing out loud—or smirking—either way always beautiful to witness—the moment he stepped into the office: there would be a white-gloved archivist buried in boxes of hundreds, thousands of his negatives, busy cataloguing and transferring original material into archival sleeves and boxes; another member of the team, busy scanning prints and transparencies; large computer screens all displaying Barnor’s photographs being digitally preserved, restored and retouched back to their original state, while other colleagues including myself were working on different aspects of “Operation Barnor” that had taken over Autograph’s offices for the time being … that time being at least twelve months if not closer to eighteen months! Which, for a small charitable arts organization, is a big investment in terms of resources.
The exhibition I organized in 2010 emerged as a direct result of this urgent and rigorous initial process of research, cataloguing, high resolution scanning, digital preservation, and contextualizing led by Autograph and our dedicated if small archive team—and, of course, in-depth curation. The show represents only select aspects of Barnor’s archive: James and I often spoke about how many countless other exhibitions could and should be curated in years to come, from his wide-ranging practice. I’m very glad to know that this is now happening, and excited to see what other curators, gallerists and archivists will introduce.
I saw the exhibition at Autograph in 2010. It was amazing. Some prints were blown up really large and worked fantastically well and then you retained the small-scale postcard size of the original photo album prints. What was the thinking behind that?
Thank you … from a curator’s perspective the idea was to create a dialogue or juxtaposition between the several stages of his practice—street and studio, London and Accra—and to represent the quality of his work at different scales: to make a bold statement, if you will. To introduce his work as not merely an archive of prints related to his country of origin (as it had been seen before, at BCA for example) but as key contemporary artworks reflecting his talent and visual politics of (trans)cultural history and identity, re-positioned in a gallery context, printed, largely, from digitally preserved internegatives—new surrogate large format negatives made from restored scans of the originals. Enlarging the studio—as well as the street—portraits brought all the finer details and intricacies of his prints to life, magnified: his trademark studio figurine, the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, and importantly representing the Drum models such as the formidable Erlin Ibreck or broadcaster Mike Eghan larger-than-life. It imbued the works, and his sitters, with a presence and stature: commanding admiration, and claiming space. Seeing the works at this scale enabled a different viewing experience … At the same time, I felt it was important to preserve and respect the intrinsic quality of the archive; hence the exhibition featured both, modern and vintage prints. The show was conceived as a transnational dialogue, a curatorial conversation across time, and place, enabling the [art] world and wider community to celebrate a key figure in the global, cultural history of photography.
Can you also fill me in on what happened before Autograph and after (SANG) that you were still responsible for? How did that feel as curator of the exhibition and what was it like witnessing James experiencing all that attention for the first time?
As a curator working within an institution advocating for black photographers to be recognized for several decades (Autograph was established in 1988), it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to help Barnor achieve the recognition he so deserves, enjoys, and importantly—during his lifetime. Too often this happens too late, and/or posthumously. I was very pleased that we at Autograph were in a position to invest the necessary resources at a crucial time, and with the exhibition’s critical international reception, and everything that has happened as a result since, especially the acquisitions by major public institutions as these investments ensure the permanent legacy of his work …
Working with James’s archive constituted an important phase in my curatorial career and one I look back to with pride, and gratitude. It’s always wonderful to be part of something that’s transformative for an artist’s practice—and especially so for a nonagenarian!—as well as addressing a gap or what we tend to describe as a “missing chapter” in existing narratives.
The exhibition at Harvard’s Hutchins Center (formerly Du Bois Institute) was the first exhibition of Barnor’s work I curated, following the initial phase of cataloguing, digitizing, archiving—it was a kind of “prelude” to the 2010 autumn retrospective, if you will. In addition to international touring venues, works were also loaned to several group exhibitions internationally—such as Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, organized by The Photographers’ Gallery and shown at the Shenzen and Misheng Art Museum, Shanghai, China or Swinging Sixties London—Photography in the Capital of Cool at Foam in Amsterdam. Major acquisitions we negotiated resulted in James’ work to be featured in blockbuster museum exhibitions such as Another London: International Photographers Capture London Life 1930-1980 at Tate Britain, London; as well as at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of Staying Power. These moments are always a highlight: when our curatorial work directly affects the diversification of institutional—or “mainstream”—collecting.
Another highlight was witnessing James Barnor participate on the main stage at the Black Portraitures symposium in Paris, for instance, where he was on a panel with other great African photographers such as the late J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikeire.
In 2015, I had the pleasure to edit his first monograph, which was published in 2015 with his gallery Clémentine de la Féronnière, in partnership with Autograph.
The exhibition is still traveling, on and off—we are currently in the process of confirming the next iteration of the Ever Young: James Barnor at Casa Africa, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain for 2020.
How you feel about it all looking back?
When I first met James Barnor in 2009, I knew then that once preserved, and re-presented within a gallery or museum context, these photographs would be celebrated widely, for the illuminating visual evidence they offer not only of an important chapter now deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of the UK’s national story with regards to race, diversity and representation, but the wider cultural history of photography and most importantly: African history, African contemporary art, Ghanaian history of independence, global cultural politics, and visual culture.
Looking back today, after almost a decade of continued advocacy by Autograph, I feel proud that this mission has been achieved … and that others are continuing this work and keeping Barnor’s practice in the public eye: my colleagues at Autograph, fellow curators and writers such as yourself, dedicated gallerists such as Clémentine de la Féronnière, other scholars and graduate students and researchers … as well as his peers, of course.
But above all, I am delighted that James is alive and well to enjoy the much-deserved recognition, if late in life, traveling with his work, meeting new people and forging alliances.
The book James Barnor: Ever Young was published by les éditions Clémentine de la Féronnière in 2015 in partnership with Autograph. It’s a beautiful publication. Can you talk a little bit about the book and the collaboration, if possible?
Thank you. The book project was championed by gallerist Clémentine de la Féronnière and Sarah Preston of Neutral Grey agency who first approached us in 2014, I believe, to discuss a collaboration … we then began planning the tour of the original Ever Young: James Barnor exhibition to Clémentine’s gallery in Paris. Since there was no publication to accompany the show, the obvious next step was to produce a catalogue and that’s how the partnership ensued. Given that we had already digitized and selected key works from James’ archive over the years, including many additional works not featured in the exhibition, it made sense to collaborate and create a book that reflected the curatorial vision of the inaugural show for James’ first artist monograph, in a series of chapters … It gave me the opportunity to finally write the story of the exhibition in my opening essay, and to reflect on the work and process. We also invited the great editor, writer, publisher and broadcaster Margaret Busby OBE and leading photography critic professor Francis Hodgson—who had originally reviewed the exhibition for the Financial Times in 2010—into a conversation with James, which was edited and transcribed for the book. Kobena Mercer’s brilliant text “People Get Ready”—also originally commissioned as an extended exhibition review/essay of our 2010 show by the New Humanist—was also reproduced in the book.
Exhibitions disappear, eventually, but books as you know represent a permanent legacy; hence publishing continues to be of utmost importance: knowing that a copy of James’ first artist monograph is forever lodged at the British Library makes me—and I am sure I can speak on behalf of my colleagues at Autograph—very, very happy indeed. It’s part of our original, and ongoing, critical mission to generate new knowledge, affect wider narratives and advocate for black photographers and artists globally.