Posted April 4, 2011 by Amma Sarfo
Tastemaker/Image Maker publications like The New York Times’ feature , and art galleries around the world showcasing the work of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, the global rediscovery of Senegal’s Oumar Ly , who still resides in Podar, Senegal, where he opened his first studio, and the new found love for everything Fela Kuti related sprouting new life into the work of the man known affectionately as Femi Foto, the insider who captured the life and times of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his inner circle known as the Kalakuta Republic , are collectively bringing back Africa’s nostalgia, history and resurgence of the creativity and talent of Africans and what our nations had and have to offer the global paradigm of art.
Just when I thought last week couldn’t get any better in my Black Star pride for Ghana/Ghanaians continously creating historical firsts, I was amazed and excited to find out about James Barnor at NYU’s ”Beauty and Fashion: The Black Portrait Symposium”. I was already on a high as Asamoah Gyan led the Ghana Black Stars to a 1/1 draw against England becoming the first African team to score against England, along with Ghanaian/Brit filmmaker- Sam Kessie debuting the documentary film Zum Zum: The Career of Azumah Nelson for the first time in the US, as the first Ghanaian filmmaker and the first sports film to be featured at National Geographic, then I discovered the James Barnor story, which was totally off my radar of Ghanaian history in its historical firsts and the Briton connection between them all. I was saddened that I had never heard of such a great man whose images popped off the screen at the symposium and made me fall in love instantly before I even knew he was from Ghana. I was filled with the comfort of joy to know that we can and should never stop learning because once you cease to learn new things on stimulating your life and mind, then you might as well be dead or live through the sorrow and uneventfulness of life in rigamortis. It was an honor to know that Ghana had our own man of the time who captured our history and represented our nation in fashion and global hauteness from his point of view in telling our unique African story.
“in 1950, aged 21, I rented a small shop in Jamestown in Accra and opened a studio and dark room. I painted the signboard myself––I named it Ever Young, after a story I’d heard when I was younger about a goddess who lived in a pretty grove of the same name. The goddess knew she was really old, but a hero came to give her an apple that, as soon as she had eaten it, made her feel fresh and young again. That brings back the magic of retouching in photography––filling all the lines and ridges to make the person look young. There was no electricity there when I started so I used the daylight for shoots. There was no running water either, so I had to walk to a communal tap at the end of the road to collect water for developing. I went on to work as a photojournalist at the two main publications in Ghana––the newspaper The Daily Graphic, and Drum, the leading magazine in Africa, which covered news, politics and entertainment. Covering politics was where Drum had trouble, because when African countries were becoming independent, and you bring out stories some people don’t like, they would do anything.Drum was banned in Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana at one time. What I did in London, fashion photography, was totally different. I met a girl––Erlin Ibreck––in a bus queue in Victoria. You wouldn’t think you’d find a girl [in this way] and manage to convince her to become a friend and change her profession from being a secretary to a model, but I did.” Read More
“Although Barnor says he wasn’t consciously attempting to chronicle ‘black culture’ in England, and was simply taking photographs of things that interested him and the readers of Drum , the effect was, none the less, an optimistic suggestion that these cosmopolitan young African women were part of the exciting new, multicultural society in London that people were talking about. Barnor’s memories of the time seem to be largely positive, and he says he doesn’t remember experiencing any overt racism. ‘I moved in enlightened circles so I did not have to put up with most of what other black people had to go through, though I did notice when I sat on a bus many people didn’t want to sit next to me.’ I ask Barnor if he ever had curious looks from passers-by – a black photographer taking pictures of a black model. He shrugs and says, ‘I didn’t think of what people thought of me. I just thought about what shot I could get.’The studio was named after a piece of English comprehension Barnor had studied as a boy, which described a princess who stayed young by eating magic apples. It was also something, Barnor says, that alluded to his retouching techniques. ‘I learnt to retouch by hand. Long before Photoshop existed you would use a pencil. I would retouch the pictures to make people look younger.’ The studio had no running water so Barnor filled buckets from a communal tap for developing his pictures, and, as electricity was expensive, took most of the photographs in the daytime. In the late 1950s Barnor decided to further his qualifications in England. ‘My first impression of London was of all the posters advertising things and the colour and variety. As someone with a visual mind I found it very exciting. ‘But it wasn’t easy for a black person to do photography. If at all, it would be in the darkroom – backstage, where you don’t face the customer or the client. We were excited when we heard of people like David Bailey who were becoming famous. But there wasn’t much chance to meet them.’ After 10 years in England Barnor returned to Ghana, where he helped open the first colour-processing laboratory in the country. Twenty-four years later he moved back to London.”
Many of Barnor’s Drum Cover Models went on to greater achievements despite the obstacles brought to them during a specific time when color took precedence over the content of one’s character, beauty and ability. Before Bond Girls became infamous, before Charlie found his Angels, before the Squad became Mod there was British-Nigerian Marie Hallowi kicking butt as the femme fatale of British Television Show “The Avengers“, along with Ugandan- Erlin Ibreck discovered at the age of 19 by Barnor, who is now the program director for the Strategic Opportunities Fund at the prestigious Soros Organization.