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Press release: James Barnor, Past, Present, Future


1-30 April 2021
CIRCA, Piccadilly Circus, W1

A new series of films celebrating the work and legacy of British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor will be presented by CIRCA in collaboration with Serpentine on the Piccadilly Lights screen throughout April: revisiting the past to shoot a new cover for Vogue Italia (directed by Ferdinando Verderi), a photographic archive remixed for today (created by Olu Michael Odukoya) and a future showcase of creative talent on the rise from Africa and the diaspora (curated by Culture Art Society) Past, Present, Future’ celebrates Barnors archive as a fertile body of work that continues to inspire emerging artists today. 

Barnor’s studio portraiture, photojournalism and lifestyle photography spans six decades and has gained increasing recognition as among the most important records of societies in transition during the postwar period. 

The presentation of Barnor’s work on the Piccadilly Lights screen completes a journey that began more than half a century ago, when Barnor photographed BBC Africa Service presenter Mike Eghan against the backdrop of Piccadilly’s neon signs in 1967. That electrifying image was the inspiration behind Ferdinando Verderi’s Vogue Italia cover shoot, with Barnor remote-shooting model Adwoa Aboah standing in the exact same location to create a present reflection on the past. 

This is the first partnership between CIRCA and a major gallery to find new collaborative ways of presenting world-leading artists in the public realm. Serpentine will host a major survey of Barnor’s work James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective from 19 May (dates subject to government guidelines). Focusing on the period 1950-1980, the exhibition selects from more than 40,000 available images, all distinguished by Barnor’s unmistakable eye and indelible connection to his sitters. 

Barnor’s ‘Past, Present, Future’ will be broadcast in three films, each showing for 10 days, throughout April: 

Past (1-10 April) A visual presentation of Barnor’s photographs taken in London throughout the 1960s, edited by Ferdinando Verderi, Creative Director of Vogue Italia, from Black models such as Erlin Ibreck and Marie Hallowi, to street observations of Pearly Kings and Covent Garden market traders 

Present (11-20 April) London-based creative director Olu Michael Odukoya will revisit and reinvent the archive of James Barnor exploring three themes that have synergies jointly across Barnor’s and Odukoya’s work using sound performance, video, animation and graphics. 

– Future (21-30 April) A spotlight on five emerging photographers from Africa and the diaspora: David Nana Opoku Ansah, Silvia Rosi, Thabiso Sekgala, Adama Jalloh and Lebohang Kganye, curated by Culture Art Society (CAS) to reflect on their shared trajectories to Barnor’s archive, and supported with funds raised by the #CIRCAECONOMY.

Barnor, born in 1929, was the first newspaper photographer in pre-independence Ghana during the 1950s. He moved to Britain from Jamestown, Ghana in 1959 and spent the following decade furthering his studies and creating a unique archive of works documenting the African diaspora who had immigrated to Britain. 

Barnor lived and worked in London for ten years, continuing assignments for the pioneering South African anti-apartheid magazine Drum, which supported a generation of rising African photographers. Barnor’s photographs during his first decade in London captured the culture and identity of diasporic communities, cover shoots and stories for Drum, such as Muhammed Ali in training for a fight, alongside observations of London life such as Covent garden market traders and Pearly Kings. 

Barnor returned to Ghana in 1969, to establish the first colour processing lab in the country. He returned to London in 1994 where, now 91, he still lives. Having spent much of his life little known to the public, Barnor’s first solo exhibition took place at the Black Cultural Archives in London in 2007. A major solo retrospective Ever Young: James Barnor, organised by Autograph ABP, followed in 2010 at Rivington Place, London. The forthcoming Serpentine exhibition James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective is curated by Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Chief Curator, Serpentine, and Awa Konaté, Assistant Curator. 

A limited-edition £100 print by James Barnor featuring Adwoa Aboah on the cover of Vogue Italia is available to purchase on CIRCA.ART until 30 April.

30% of the profits will be donated by the #CIRCAECONOMY in support of the James Barnor Foundation. Special thanks to Conde Nast, the team at Vogue Italia and James Barnor for their generous support.

Followers of CIRCA are invited to support their free public art programme and see their name appear beside Vivienne Westwood, Gagosian, Patti Smith and more on the iconic Piccadilly Lights screen until the end of the year from just £100. To c. your name in lights, please visit: circa.art/support-circa

James Barnor, quote: “I came across a magazine with an inscription that said, ‘A civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they themselves never sit.’ But it’s not only plants – putting something in somebody’s life, a young person’s life, is the same as planting a tree that you will not cut and sell. That has helped me a lot in my work. Sometimes the more you give, the more you get. That’s why I’m still going at 90!” 

Bettina Korek, Chief Executive and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director, Serpentine quote: “We are so pleased to be able to collaborate with James Barnor and with CIRCA and take this remarkable work out of the gallery and back on to the streets of the city where it was made. James Barnor inspires generations of photographers around the world and his work deserves to be seen by the widest possible audiences.” 

Josef O’Connor, Artistic Director, CIRCA, quote: “This is a full circle moment, reuniting James Barnor with Piccadilly Circus, more than half a century after he captured this London landmark at a moment of profound change

for the city and its people. We are honored to be working with Serpentine, James Barnor, and new collaborators at another moment of flux when this setting can once again speak for the emerging identities and creativity of the city.” 


Special thanks to James Barnor. 

Born in 1929 in Ghana, James Barnor established his famous Ever Young studio in Accra in the early 1950s, capturing a nation on the cusp of independence in an ambiance animated by conversation and highlife music. In 1959 he arrived in London, furthering his studies and continuing assignments for influential South African magazine Drum which reflected the spirit of the era and the experiences of London’s burgeoning African diaspora. He returned to Ghana in the early 1970s to establish the country’s first colour processing lab while continuing his work as a portrait photographer and embedding himself in the music scene.

Championing new ideas in contemporary art since 1970, the Serpentine has presented pioneering exhibitions for half a century, from a wide range of emerging practitioners to the most internationally recognised artists of our time. Across two sites only 5 minutes apart, in London’s Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine presents a year-round, free programme of exhibitions, architecture, education, live events and technological innovation, in the park and beyond. Proud to maintain free access for all visitors, thanks to its unique location the Serpentine reaches an exceptionally broad audience and maintains a deep connection with its local community.

Created by artist Josef O’Connor, CIRCA commissions a different artist each month to present new ideas that consider our world circa 2021. Each artist is invited to create a new work for Europe’s largest screen that offers an innovative and exciting way for people to engage with art, both outside and online, in a safe and socially distanced way. Barnor’s works will pause Piccadilly’s adverts at 20:21 GMT, a new time for 2021. They make up CIRCA’s fourth instalment of the year, following acclaimed messages by Patti Smith, Tony Cokes, and Emma Talbot.

Visitors to Piccadilly Circus can connect their headphones to WWW.CIRCA.ART and receive a fully immersive audio-visual experience. The website also streams the artwork every evening at c.20:21GMT and hosts supporting content alongside past archives of CIRCA commissioned works from Patti Smith and Ai Weiwei. 

For more information, please contact: