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First U.S. retrospective – and major survey – of works by the pioneering Ghanaian photographer who photographed African and Afro-Diasporic lives through social and cultural changes in the 20th Century

James Barnor (Ghana, b. 1929). A shop assistant at Sick-Hagemeyer Accra, 1971 (printed 2010–20). Chromogenic print. Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris. © James Barnor, courtesy Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) presents ‘James Barnor: Accra/London—A Retrospective’, a comprehensive survey of the pioneering Ghanaian photographer, marking the first U.S. retrospective of his influential work.

On view May 28 through October 15, 2023, the exhibition shows more than 170 photos from Barnor’s archive of over 32,000 images, dating from the 1950s to 1980s and offering views of the artist’s native Ghana, as well as the African diaspora in the United Kingdom, during times of major social and political changes.

‘Accra/London’ was initiated and organised by Serpentine, London which debuted the acclaimed exhibition in 2021. It was curated by Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Chief Curator, Serpentine and Awa Konaté: Culture Art Society (CAS), Assistant Curator and in collaboration with Clémentine de la Féronnière, Sophie Culière (James Barnor Archives) and Isabella Senuita. The exhibition was presented at MASI Lugano, Switzerland, in 2022 following the London showing. The DIA’s presentation features additional photographs by Barnor from the museum’s permanent collection. The DIA will also recreate Barnor’s Ever Young portrait studio to give visitors a glimpse of his early artistic environment.

This exhibition continues a series of DIA programs that elevate Black voices from around the world, while building an important literacy about these decades. The show comes after highly celebrated DIA exhibitions that highlighted Black artists including ‘Black Is Beautiful: The Photographs of Kwame Brathwaite’ (2021), ‘Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections’ (2021), and ‘The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion’ (2021), among others.

Through intimate portraits, photojournalism, and lifestyle photography, Barnor approached his work as a conversation between individuals and himself. Barnor’s artistic career spans six decades and enriches the diversity of contemporary African art beyond textiles and sculptures. His work highlights important milestones in modern African history, by documenting the people, events, societies, and events of Ghana as the country transitioned from a British colony to an independent nation. This work continued in his images of the African diaspora in the United Kingdom. Consequently, his body of work has influenced photographers in Africa and around the world.

“I am honoured the Detroit Institute of Arts chose to spotlight my work, allowing Detroit audiences to receive an opportunity to discover the important years in African history and culture that the photos represent,” said photographer James Barnor. “It is my hope that these images can inspire a new generation of artists.”

“It is with tremendous pride that we present James Barnor’s brilliant photography, and this exhibit represents a milestone moment for our museum as we share his important, impactful work,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “I express my sincere gratitude to our co- curators, Nii and Nancy, for their tireless work bringing this exhibit to our community and leading this critical dialogue.”

“It is a pleasure to present this important photographic collection about African life and history,” said Nii Quarcoopome, Department Head of Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas, and Curator of African Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “Barnor’s intimate photographs challenge and expand our notion of African art; they also tell stories about Accra and London where he lived and worked, capturing the lives and lifestyles in transition in Africa and the diaspora. We hope this illuminating presentation encourages further discussion and discovery of Africa from this period.”

“The Detroit Institute of Arts is committed to portraying a wide range of photography from different voices, viewpoints, and backgrounds, and this incredible show exemplifies our continued efforts,” said Nancy Barr, Department Head, Prints, Drawing and Photographs and James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “Barnor’s vibrant images, including some from our very own collection, document a significant moment in history and we thrilled to bring them to American audiences.”

Born in 1929 in Ghana, Barnor established his famous Ever Young Studio in Accra in the early 1950s, taking portraits of political, cultural, and other local figures. After moving to London in 1959, he found success as a fashion and editorial photographer with African magazines such as Flamingo and with the anti-apartheid South African publication Drum, while making cover photographs and feature stories that reflected the spirit of the times and the vibrant styles of the African diaspora. Upon returning to his homeland in the 1970s, he founded the country’s first colour photo processing lab and continued working as a portrait photographer. Throughout his long career, he worked with Ghanaian Highlife musicians, and documented fashion, sports, and society with exceptional passion. Now in his 90s, he currently lives in London.

The exhibition is on view from the 28th of May, until the 15th of October, 2023. For more information, please visit the Detroit Institute of Art.

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