Ghana's Independence In Pictures At Black Cultural Archives

By Kim Sherwood | 30 May 2007
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photo shows older man surrounded by two younger

James Barnor visits Black Cultural Archives. Courtesy of BCA.

Ghanaian Londoner James Barnor looks back on sixty years of history in a new show at Black Cultural Archives. Kim Sherwood went to explore the pictures.

Read about the early history of Ghanaians in London.

It is poignant that, as the celebrations for Ghanaian independence begin, the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) is displaying images which contrast 1960’s England with Ghana on the exuberant cusp of self-determination. The pictures are by Ghanaian-born James Barnor (aged 79).

Pictures of London

The London images range from smoky portraits of Jazz musicians, both black and white, to photographs of Barnor himself, before flashing Coca-Cola signs, huge watch adverts and large fountains shadowed by taller buildings.

Three portraits of Muhammad Ali are particularly good, capturing the boxer in wild moments of vitality and quiet concentration. In Barnor’s work for Drum Magazine, a music magazine for African and Caribbean artists, one is reminded of both ‘60’s fashion and Audrey Hepburn elegance. Through these Barnor presents the rare success of black artists in this era.

Ghana celebrates independence

Moving to Ghana, the photographs reveal capital Accra in the throes of early modernisation. It shows too the politicians of independence, including Prime Minister Nkrumah, J.B. Danquah and Obetsebi Lamptey.

Curator Nana-Oforiatta-Ayim draws attention to the ‘knowledge that the politicians, captured here at the height of their potency…were later stripped of their hopes’, which adds a sad note to the joyous men in these images.

Barnor’s crisp black and white style before plain backgrounds intensifies the portraits of Ghanaian citizens who, despite the sometimes wearied or weathered faces, have a delight that mirrors that of the optimistic politicians. Other pictures illustrate the process of independence, in which Barnor, with zoom drawn back and camera perfectly placed to catch on-lookers’ and officials’ expressions, shows Ghanaian dignitaries meeting the English Queen.

He captures too the ephemeral moments of 1957, from a priest in sunglasses striding next to a politician, to the mass of fisherman’s boats piled onto the beach, to the jubilant citizens. Barnor draws parallels between the glitzy materialism of England with its struggling vein of black artists, and a hopeful farewell to archaic imperialism in Ghana.

If this photographic meeting is poignant, the size of this exhibition, and its clear lack of funding are even more so.

There's a lack of captions, while the television interview is on a small screen, a contrast to the modernity of other museums. ‘Museum’ is also a loose word: the BCA is temporarily housed in one room on the first floor of an extremely small building. The photos meanwhile are 6 by 4 unframed images propped up on shelves. Although the images are intelligently organised, it’s a sign that efforts to teach our diverse history in England are still in transition. It underlines how urgently this material, and the BCA’s collections, need a larger permanent home.

A new home for the Black Cultural Archives

The archives hope to established in a new centre in 2009. Given by Lambeth Council as part of a wider project to regenerate the area, the project is receiving 70% of its funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the GLA also helping. Despite this a lot will depend on outside fundraising.

The BCA’s proclaimed mission is ‘to promote teaching, learning and understanding of the contributions of people of African and Caribbean descent to the history of Britain’. Barnor’s photos then of a transitional Ghana, and an England in which Black artists and celebrities were beginning to grow are a taste of the insights BCA could offer the public in its upcoming Brixton centre.

Black Cultural Archives are running a Friend’s scheme for those who would like to contribute to the building of the new centre. Visit their website for further details.

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