The photographs of James Barnor, the celebrated photographer, offer unique glimpses into the exciting world of Ghana just before independence in 1957 and its immediate aftermath. They reveal the social forces that engineered the break with colonialism. Significantly, the photos reflect the optimism of the times and empower future generations with powerful images that speak to the dreams of their forebears.
The Master of Light
James Barnor’s work illustrates the striking use of light, both natural and artificial. To make light fall on paper or an object in a way that illuminates the social significance of the art is a skill reserved for masters and divas. Barnor achieves this consistently in his work. Like El Anastui, Kofi Antubam, Ablade Glover and other great Ghanaian artists, Barnor uses colour textures to evoke social meaning and tell powerful stories.
Unlike the use of “photoshopping” and technological manipulation these days, Barnor, by virtue of his times relied on his own innate talent and skills to capture not just the magical moment but produce art of great historical significance.
In the above photograph, the light falls on the two persons in focus; the British royal dignitary and the new leader of the Gold Coast colony. Kwame Nkrumah bows but the British royalty remains upright. The door of her limousine is open, and the escort or attendant waits diligently. In contrast, Nkrumah’s guards are far away and positioned to look elsewhere. From a single photograph, there is a myriad of interpretations that can help us interrogate the subtext of the real dynamics of decolonisation. Was it the end of an era as most Ghanaians thought or entente cordiale agreed with a firm handshake between two unequal parties?
In Barnor’s classic photograph above, the focus of light is on the traditionally clothed Ghanaian musician, confidently blowing into the future. Next to him is a prisoner or manual labourer. From his facial expression, he looks crossed and is not likely to share the musician’s optimism. His wheel borrow is empty, so we can assume he had just emptied the contents and not taking anything valuable away.
The photograph highlights two critical narratives evoked by Ghana’s independence – looking confidently into the future, and on the other hand, the depths from which the majority of the people had to rise.