A black and white photograph of several Ghanaian men who are facing away from us and leaning against a wooden rowing boat with white bands tied round their heads. One is turning and smiling at us.
James Barnor, Harbour Regatta during Independence Celebrations, Accra Beach, 1957

Photo Poetry: Three Responses to James Barnor's Archive

Samatar Elmi, Louisa Adjoa Parker and Amina Jama write from photographs by James Barnor.

Held at Serpentine from 30 March to 24 October 2021, James Barnor: Accra/London A Retrospective was a major survey exhibition of British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, whose career spans six decades and two continents. Forever adaptable and energetic, Barnor has worked in studio portraiture, photojournalism, editorial commissions, and social commentary. His work has had a major influence on Black media and artists across multiple generations. Barnor’s ability to capture the spirit of a person, a moment, or a changing era allows his archive to feel deeply alive, offering rich starting points for writers.

For Photo Poetry, Samatar Elmi, Louisa Adjoa Parker and Amina Jama were invited to write from photographs that they were drawn to within the exhibition. Commissioned in collaboration with flipped eye publishing, these poems were woven into the live programme around the exhibition, with Jama and Elmi performing during a day-long celebration of James Barnor at Serpentine in September 2021. Lucky Jim’s Concert Party served as Barnor’s belated 92nd birthday party, and was filled with music and dance. The afternoon featured an acoustic tribute by UK-based West African drummers to the Ghanaian band and cultural troupe Fɛɛ Hii, which Barnor managed for over twenty years. You can watch this performance and highlights from the day on our YouTube.

Listen to Amina Jama and Samatar Elmi read at Lucky Jim’s Concert Party

A photograph of two Ghanaian women with elegant hairstyles and jewellery wearing colourful traditional dress. They are talking and one leans on a red car
James Barnor, Two friends dressed for a church celebration with James' car, Accra, 1970s

Colour in Ghana by Amina Jama

in response to Two Friends Dressed for a Church Celebration

Gold drips from wrists and flesh like a bodice
drawn in chalk over the chest. Traffic stops
for these church goers, faith lovers, export mothers,
fashion owners, high exposure. Oil slips
as if the first client of skin. One woman
stares directly at me, her body angled towards
the sun, a double spread, hardworking beauty,
malice knows no lover.
This is the Accra James has become.

Gratitude is in head crowns,
banana stalls and nerves turning you away
from the future. My niece asked me if these women
know they are forever living in photos?
I think we all hope for that: to be immortalised in colour,
without the burdens of ancestry or washed pigment
but the potential of clashing prints
and photo catalogues. To overcome
first daughter syndrome, derailment, tiredness.

Baskets weave on the side of the road and non-existent pavements;
Accra, Nairobi, Lagos. Now, Mogadishu.
Pigment floats on a beach, water reflecting in 4D,
could be one week or twenty years. My aunty
adorns a red bandana, a challenge to the government.
Her daughter went missing and in her grief
she becomes a rock thrower, a house turner,
a stand on your front lawn mother, a protestor.
She doesn’t wait for justice. James captures
protest elegantly, as if anger walks concrete in heels.

I am taken back to drive throughs, leaning between the seats, saying
No cheese in the burger please uncle; okay, two cheeseburgers,
No, uncle, no cheese, in the burger, no cheese;
three cheese burgers my uncle says.

Holding my sister outside of a studio, slowly
devouring a cheeseburger, thirty chews per mouthful is a demonstration
in burials. The neighbour pokes his head out of their gate. We share
a tree. My dad battled in court for years as the branches invaded
his personal space. There are more important things to fight for,
we all thought: missing children, corruption, the cost of living.
Some may say he was avoiding fatherhood
or debt, fixating on this tree. We say no comment, but let gold drip
from our wrists and earlobes, no floating pigment for us, still paying
in generations of tension and of heartbreak.

A backlit portrait of a Franciscan monk in black and white. The monk is wearing a brimmed hat and robe, and is photographed in black and white against a brick wall
James Barnor, Francis Thompson at Nashdom Abbey, 1962

The Wall by Samatar Elmi

in response to Francis Thompson at Nashdom Abbey

I know this wall;
these bricks as old as the breath of God.
He leans against the façade with a lightness
that could be levitation or desperation.
It’s in the way he shifts his weight.

I know what he listens for;
the word of a shepherd who once rested on the wall
the river’s shy delight,
a shower of apples,
that could only flow or fall in such a place.

I know this priest
because it’s his turn to lean, gaze back
into a world of loss and renunciation.
He hears his own footsteps somewhere in that long grass
and it warms his cold feet.

When it was my turn to lean
I kissed these bricks bloody;
the intimacy of my hands behind my back.
I cut my name into the masonry
beside those of saints and rogues –
a memetic, a madeline, a pinching of skin.

England is freezing.
And I doubt that either of us could feel our feet.
I tried to ignore the clamour behind the wall.
Locks bolting, film rolling
the incessant drowning of ghosts

I do not know this man
I do not know this man
I do not know this man

This hat and gown. This cap and hoodie.
Our black silhouettes. The damned. The holy.
I tried to piece together the old ceramic shards
scattered along the wall, that maybe
if I could make the figure whole again

the shepherd would say a promised prayer
and the wall would disappear.
But what if the only remembered spells were

I do not know these men
I do not know these men
I do not know these men

A black and white photo of a young woman with coiffed hair in a sixties style looking over her shoulder towards the camera
James Barnor, Eva, James' niece and daughter of J.P.D. Dodoo, London, 1960s

When men plant trees
Louisa Adjoa Parker

in response to: Harbour Regatta during Independence Celebrations; Tempos band, birthday celebration; Marie Hallowi, Drum cover girl; Eva, James’ niece and daughter of J.P.D. Dodoo; and Fishing area boat, Jamestown beach

I
A boy who’s becoming a man
sits right of centre, camera in his lap,
silver cross at his throat
and at his feet, a half-woven basket,
straw fanning out in the dust,
and in the foreground, the bright faces
of children, eager as saplings
and joy dances over him
like the light from a low sun
and soft-edged shadows
rest in the contours of his face,
and this boy knows
he will always turn towards the light
and everything will be joy
and the gift he’s been given –
cheap plastic, lens like a glass face,
stiff, tan leather case – brings
what’s been in his blood all along
up to the surface
of his skin.

II
A young man who’s been blessed by luck
stands, left of centre, on the steps
of a low-slung building
with corrugated roof,
with the words Ever Young painted
across the whitewashed wall,
and a white bowl sits on a low table
on the street, where shadows fall
across the walls, and people in Kente cloths
line the roadside like young trees,
and in the foreground
a coconut palm brushes the low sky
as though it grew from stone
and he’s thinking of the Goddess:
how apples made her young, how
he’ll use her magic in the darkroom
to restore youth, and how his eyes
see the world as a series of stills
which are perfectly composed
and how he loves the way light
and shadow fall across each face,
and how each face is a map
of histories, and how his eyes find beauty
in places it’s not meant to belong
and he knows that here – this place –
will soon be filled with joy and dancing
and he will bear witness, freeze time,
show the world this Africa
in a new light.


III

A man who has a thirst to know
stands at the studio door
camera slung around his neck
and he’s leaving the static behind –
black cloth and big plate camera –
and looking for movement outside
and he will walk the streets of Accra,
and he will see people and places
and markets and cemeteries,
and the muscles on fishermen’s arms
ripple like waves
and he will see salt-battered canoes
being pulled into shore
and people swimming under the moonlight
and he will go wherever there is news
and he will bear witness
to the final footsteps
in a long march to freedom
and one day, the moments in time
he has caught, like leaves falling
from a tall tree
will become history.

 

IV
A man who is learning colour stands,
right of centre, camera slung
around his neck. A smile plays on his lips
and he wears a shirt and high-waisted slacks,
his arms are folded, his gaze direct.
Colour seeps in around the edges
of each frame, each dream
in muted, Sixties tones, and prints
and it’s London in the Sixties
and everyone is swinging, and London buses
are a vivid red against the grey
and behind him are buildings taller than trees
and rainbow-collared pigeons are pecking at his feet
and he is a man who finds beauty
in places it’s not supposed to go
without wanting to steal it for himself
and he will take pictures of black women
in shift dresses, shiny bobbed hair
and smoky, kohl-lined eyes,
gazing at the camera’s lens
and he will plant seeds,
watch them growing from afar.

V
A man – who’s been lucky his whole life –
stands, right of centre, in a whitewashed room
and his beard and hair are white,
the skin underneath his eyes grown dark
and his eyes have found joy
wherever they’ve looked
and it dances over him
like the light from a low sun
and spreads across the lined map
of his face, and he wears a tan shirt
like prints from the Sixties here,
or the Kente cloths back home
and his shadow is reflected
in a square of glass behind him,
and his photographs line the wall
like blossoms, and he’s lived and dreamed
and breathed photography; it’s family,
it’s home, and he has sewn seeds
in young people’s lives
and he has planted trees
under which he never sat
and although his eyes droop with age
he stays ever-young, and he knows
he has been present, born witness
and he is seen.

A black and white photograph of a band playing in the street in Ghana. People are wearing 1950s suits and there is a palm tree.
James Barnor, Tempos band, birthday celebration, Adabraka, Accra, early 1950s
A photograph of a woman wearing a colourful sixties suit and holding a red umbrella, posing in a children's playpark
James Barnor, Marie Hallowi, Drum cover girl, Rochester, Kent, c.1966

Credits + Biographies

Photo Poetry was commissioned by Bianca Manu and Lizzie Carey-Thomas in collaboration with flipped eye publishing.

flipped eye is a not-for-profit independent publisher founded by Ghanaian British editor and author, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. It has won global critical acclaim, playing a pivotal role in developing poets such as Inua Ellams, Malika Booker, Miriam Nash, Nick Makoha and Warsan Shire. 

Amina Jama is a Somali-British writer, curator and facilitator. She is an alumna of Barbican Young Poets, a member of Octavia Poetry Collective, and co-host of Boxedin Live. In 2018, her work was studied by third year literature students at the University of Bristol exploring a module on Law, Race & Literature. Her debut poetry pamphlet ‘A Warning To The House That Holds Me‘ was published in 2019 by Flipped Eye Press and received a 2020 Eric Gregory Award. Jama was one of the five emerging writer-performers showcased in the Rising Stars anthology, highly commended in the 2018 CLiPPA. She worked with CLPE on the Poetry in the Primary Classroom project, in partnership with the Royal African Society. She is currently the Frieze Curatorial Fellow at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

Samatar Elmi is a poet, PhD candidate and educator. His writing plays in the liminal spaces between racial, socio-cultural and political identity claims. He has been shortlisted for the Venture Award, the Complete Works II, New Generation African Poets and is a graduate of the Young Inscribe Mentoring Program. Poems have appeared in Poetry Review, Magma, Iota, Ink Sweat and Tears, Myths of the Near Future, Scarf, the Echoing Gallery, and the Cadaverine. Samatar’s ‘Portrait of Colossus’ (flipped eye 2021) was selected as the Poetry Book Society (PBS) Summer 2021 Pamphlet Choice.

Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer and poet of English-Ghanaian heritage who lives in South-West England. Her first poetry collections were published by Cinnamon Press, and her third, How to wear a skin, was published by Indigo Dreams. Her debut short story collection, Stay with me, was published in 2020 by Colenso Books. Her poetry pamphlet, She can still sing, was published by Flipped Eye in June 2021, and she has a coastal memoir forthcoming with Little Toller Books. Parker has been highly commended by the Forward Prize; twice shortlisted by the Bridport Prize; and her grief poem, ‘Kindness’, was commended by the National Poetry Competition 2019. She has written extensively about ethnically diverse history and rural racism, and she also works as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion consultant.

Archive

Discover 50 years of the Serpentine

From the architecture pavilion and digital commissions to the ideas marathon and the General Ecology programme, explore 50 years of artists, projects and exhibitions.

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