The show, titled “James Barnor: Accra/London - A Retrospective”, runs until Oct. 24 and gives an overview of a career that has spanned more than 60 years, two continents and numerous cities, including New York and Paris.
Bettina Korek, chief executive of the Serpentine, said it was “urgent” to present a major survey of Barnor’s photography because “public knowledge of his work does not yet match the influence it has had upon generations of creators who’ve followed in his footsteps.”
“Central to Barnor’s work is the intimate documentation of African and Afro-diasporic lives across time and space,” according to the Serpentine. “Whether making family snapshots, commissioned portraits or commercial assignment, Barnor approaches the photographic process as a collaborative venture, a conversation with the sitter, and his images are a testament to a lifetime of encounters.”
The show’s organizers said that Barnor has “captured images of societies in transition and transformation” throughout his career, with his work encompassing the genres of studio portraiture, photojournalism and social documentary photography. As one of Ghana’s first photojournalists, Barnor recorded major social and political changes, including the lead-up to his homeland’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957.
The photos in this massive show are drawn from his wide-ranging archive and focuses on the decades 1950–80, selected from more than 32,000 available images, and presented in “broadly chronological” order, the Serpentine said.
Held last March, this event presented musicians, artists, and poets such as Nii Ayikwei Parkes paying homage to Barnor, while Michael Bloomberg (Serpentine chairman), model Naomi Campbell and others spoke of his global influence (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqhWdoMOWTQ).
“What a journey this has been, what a journey you’ve had,” said Campbell, as she recalled first meeting Barnor in Ghana. “You’re a true visionary, an artist, and your influence on a generation of artists can be felt throughout the world and back, and all these years and today, it grows even stronger.”
During the “celebration”, Barnor recalled in a flim clip how he came to his craft and career. “Photography was in my family,” he said. “So right from the time that I became a little boy, my uncle was taking photographs in the house, and travelling as well. Three or four people in my family were doing photography. Somebody taught my uncle, and one my uncles taught my cousin, who taught me. And there was another photographer, another cousin… and he more or less got me into what I call… journalistic photography.”
Asked by Serpentine artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist how he “photographed freedom”, Barnor said: “I get (freedom) through my life, through my photography and my association with people... I always say it’s better to give than to be given… Civilization flourishes when men plant trees under which they will never sit. When you give... today, it will ripple and many people will get it. Even if you’re not around, that is freedom that matters.”
The retrospective is curated by Lizzie Carey-Thomas, chief curator at the Serpentine, and Awa Konaté, assistant curator. Several activities are planned around Barnor’s work and around photography in general
Images (top to bottom): Photo by James Barnor at the Serpentine Galleries; James Barnor with South African artists Robyn Denny and Mamela Nyamza in Paris (photo by McKenzie); "James Barnor: Accra/London - A Retrospective" (Installation view, 19 May - 24 October 2021, Serpentine) Photograph: Zoe Maxwell; Ebo Taylor and the Saltpond City Band play at "Portraits for the Future: A Celebration of James Barnor".