This perky policewoman is just one of the memorable images captured by the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, currently on show at Rivington Place. The first part of the exhibition contains tiny vintage prints from Accra in the late ’40s and 50s and London in the 60s, while the second, larger section offers larger contemporary prints from Accra and London during the same period. The photographs feature several glamorous cover girls on fashion shoots for Drum magazine, famous politicians and personalities including Kwame Nkrumah and Muhammad Ali, as well as everyday and domestic scenes, at a time of massive political upheaval and social transformation in both Ghana and the UK.
Among the many telling moments captured here are the independence celebrations held in Accra in 1957, with HRH Duchess of Kent and the last Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Charles Noble Arden-Clarke, shaded by a vast parasol and in the company of Nii Tackie Komey II, Paramount Chief of the Ga State, on their way to meet Kwame Nkrumah. As an image of the combined forces of tradition and transition, and the universal and enduring appeal of a bit of pomp and circumstance – under whatever administration – it’s pretty unbeatable.
Meanwhile, upstairs there’s a fascinating selection of portraits of nineteenth-century African-Americans, compiled by the black intellectual and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois for a volume called Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. Some are shot in profile and others face-on, some show older faces but most show young ones, with sombre individuals side-by-side with others struggling to suppress the giggles. There are suits, smocks, cravats and fur collars, hats with feathers in them, and a few impressive moustaches.
Taken together, the photographs offer a vital record of early African-American identities, and struggles over the representation of black subjectivity. Much of the collection’s power comes from its simultaneous framing of different yet co-existing sources of personhood within the same image or body of images, whether that is a ‘black’ identity, the ‘two-ness’ of being both African and American, the responsibility of being a working man or woman, or simply the delight of having your photo taken while wearing a silly costume. Thought-provoking, and well worth a look.
Both shows continue until 27th November.