You Can’t See This DIA Exhibition on James Barnor Anywhere Else in the Country (Yet)

James Barnor captured Muhammad Ali and inspired Beyonce’s 2018 Vogue cover photographer.
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"Sister holding broker outside studio X23, Accra, 1979." // Photograph by James Barnor, courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronniére, Paris and the Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is the first place in America to show an exhibition from a highly influential Ghanaian photographer. James Barnor: Accra/London—A Retrospective features over 170 photos Barnor took from the ‘50s to the ‘80s.

He photographed Muhammad Ali, numerous political figures, fashion models, and musicians. As a photojournalist, he documented Ghana’s liberation from colonial rule. But many of his subjects are unsung people—families, friends, and children—and these portraits are equally captivating. To the 94-year-old, “there is no hierarchy between the images,” said exhibition curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas.

“I am honored the [DIA] 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 Barnor in a statement. “It is my hope that these images can inspire a new generation of artists.”

Many cite Barnor as an influence, including Brooklyn-based photographer Tyler Mitchell, who, at 23, shot Beyonce’s 2018 Vogue cover. Mitchell was the first Black photographer to have his work appear on the cover of American Vogue.

In 1953, Barnor opened Ever Young, a portrait studio in Accra, Ghana’s capital. At the time, Ghana was a British colony called the Gold Coast. Barnor photographed people who comprised Accra’s middle class—doctors, lawyers, teachers, and government workers—on the brink of independence from British colonial rule.

“All of those things convey an impression of a vibrant city that was very much comparable to what was happening in post-war America; in African American communities,” said Nii O. Quarcoopome, curator of African art at the DIA. “I’m hoping that when [Black Americans] walk through the galleries, they’ll see themselves in this exhibition; that they will take a little bit of pride from it.”

In 1957, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to declare independence from colonial rule. In 1960, 17 more African countries followed. When viewing Barnor’s images, the DIA invites visitors to draw parallels to U.S. history.

“You have the Civil Rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s—this is the same time that Africans were also agitating for political independence,” said Quarcoopome.

In 1959, Barnor moved to London and worked as a fashion and editorial photographer, taking photos for publications, notably Flamingo and the anti-apartheid South African magazine Drum. He captured the dress and lifestyles of Africans living in London. In the ‘70s, Barnor returned to Ghana and started the country’s first color photo processing lab. His later work includes album art for Ghanaian musicians and portraits of sports figures.

Detroit is Accra/London’s third stop—it debuted at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2021, and showed at the MASI Lugano, Switzerland last year. It’s on view May 28 through Oct. 15, 2023, and free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Tickets for non-residents of those counties and more information is available on the DIA website.

Find details on more exhibits and things to do in metro Detroit at HourDetroit.com.