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The Florida Project and Disney’s Broken Circle

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The Florida Project | art by Tony StellaSean Baker's The Florida Project is among the most memorable and powerful Disney—or, at least, Disney-adjacent—films of the 21st century.
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2 days ago
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Making Markets

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Making a market combines probability estimates with measures of confidence and risk. It's good practice in finance, and good practice for Bayesians.

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15 days ago
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Dining Preferences of the Cloud and Open Source: Who Eats Who?

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The hyperclouds at work

TL;DR: If the cloud didn’t eat Hadoop Inc., Pivotal and Red Hat, what explains their diminished prospects?

Marc Andresseesssen’s “software is eating the world” has given rise to an entire technological food chain, with a succession that includes “open source is eating software”, “cloud is eating open source,” and the most recent supposition that “multi-cloud is eating cloud“.

The new food chain?

Not everyone is happy with their place in the chain. Who wouldn’t prefer to be an apex predator or keystone species? In particular, some reject the tidy sequence above and insist open source is actually “eating” cloud (and presumably also eating multi-cloud on a prix fixe menu, perhaps accompanied by a nice pinot).

I don’t get the “open source eating cloud” argument but keep hearing it. Admittedly, “eating” is not the most precise term, allowing different interpretations. Nevertheless, attempts to understand how exponents of open source doing the eating score this contest quickly get fuzzy and even metaphysical (“Sure, the clouds may take most of the revenue, but it is a moral victory for open source…”).

The public clouds are taking (dare we say “eating”?) open source software and operating that software as a service. One can say the public clouds are powered by open source (though they have plenty of proprietary software too), but that still seems like the clouds are the ones doing the consuming. From an economic perspective (which is what all the industry think pieces and analogies are about), the clouds seem to make a better business from open source than the companies built around particular projects. If you squint, open source could be seen as a very generous charitable donation to some of the largest and wealthiest corporations on the planet.

Our dining dichotomy stems from open source and clouds playing fundamentally different games. Open source enthusiasts and companies are focused on specific pieces of software and how that sausage gets made. The public clouds transcend software and operate on a vastly more expansive plane of existence where software is an important but not the sole ingredient of a service.

The public clouds knit together transoceanic cables, slabs of concrete, a reliable flow of electrons, millions of CPUs, exabytes of disk, software runtimes aplenty, legal standing and an army of people providing 24×7 operations and support, all integrated into a transactable utility accessible by anyone with a credit card. Software people often fail to appreciate that cloud services are so much more than just an instance of software, and operations is its own competency.

A huge part of the value of cloud is orthogonal to the underlying software: it lets customers get out of low value/high complexity operations (an attribute which applies equally to both saintly open source and perniciously proprietary software). Open source software often skews to the complex, sometimes to the very complex (oh, hi, Kubernetes!), making it all the more attractive to package and deliver as a service.

The unexpected and asymmetric competition from the clouds confounds open source companies, who must confront the fact the competitive advantage of knowing their software better than anyone else isn’t the insurmountable moat they had hoped. It is never fun to wake up and discover your product is now just a feature of a broader offering, but this is what is happening with software. Claiming open source is eating the cloud is like coffee bean farmers claiming they’re eating Starbucks: it willfully (or just out of delusion) ignores the vast majority of what the customer is buying.

The argument for open source winning our eating contest seems to boil down to a tautological assertion that, “at the end of the day”, victory is inevitable, because – ah – the self-evident and glorious properties of open source!

I was triggered to write this by an earnest young IBM employee who was courageously defending his employer’s hyperbolic contention that hybrid cloud “changes everything about the cloud market”. Not many IBM employees will go to bat for their company, especially when not on the clock, so I have to applaud his effort (however hopeless the task). But his argument was to simply repeat the incantation that “open source will eat the cloud”, essentially a religious faith in some inherent righteousness and superiority of open source, without regard for the broader customer problem, respective value propositions, positions in the value chain, or underlying economics.

So with this post I invite hostile fire from all directions (and expect – actually even hope – to equally annoy the open source purists, the open-but-not-actually-open open source revanchists, as well as every company named herein) in an effort to better understand this debate. (Disclosure: I worked at Micro$oft during the heyday of proprietary licensed software so may just not be able to even begin to comprehend the most basic precepts of open source).


Andy Jassy (left)

Most of the current debate focuses on Amazon and a few open source companies they have startled, like gazelles on the savannah, specifically Elastic and MongoDB. All while chronically prefacing their messaging with “customers tell us…”, AWS is offering its own services that are built on (Elastic) or are compatible with (MongoDB) popular open source projects, thereby competing with the relatively successful commercial open source companies associated with those projects. In the case of Elastic, AWS has generously created a new open source distribution of the features that Elastic had held back as proprietary software.

The prey have responded with both pluckily defiant blog posts and a frenzy of license engineering to impede AWS’ ability to use their ostensibly open source software. Others, like Cockroach Labs and Redis Labs, have followed with their own new licenses. This has renewed an existential and philosophical debate about open source: is it about free speech or does it also include the right to a free moat for key project contributors? In the end, the high priests of open source do not seem to be endorsing the “open except for people who compete with us” approach.

And it is not just AWS that is putting open source software to work. Both Google and Microsoft have many services built on open source software (and are open sourcing some of their own software). Some of their efforts are simply to drive the contrast with AWS who have assumed the role of the new open source Antichrist (much to the amusement of former Antichrist Microsoft, who meanwhile is creating services via deep partnerships with the likes of open source companies Databricks and Hashicorp).

The emergence of the cloud has also forced many open source companies to take their own service offerings more seriously. Both Elastic and MongoDB have successful cloud services that they run on the big public clouds, where they have the opportunity to walk their talk that no one is better at operating their own software. It has even been argued that AWS’s entry has been a boon for these companies’ services.

But the fundamental question is whether customers prefer a “better” individual service from the OSS companies that created a particular piece of software or is the version from the public clouds “good enough”? The public clouds may not have written the original software, but they can offer it at global scale (because CAPEX) combined with a single pane of glass to manage all your services, a single bill for all services, deeper and easier integration with complementary services, and a lower cost of customer acquisition. As I framed it previously, the question is “whether commercial open source companies can withstand and/or deserve to withstand the immense and feature-crushing gravitational pull of the public cloud black holes.” There are more serious discussions about this topic, some by people who write even longer than I do (albeit with fewer GIFs and amusing alt text).

“Fully Displaced”

Peter Levine at A16Z argues we have gotten a tad overwrought on this topic:

“I also think we have over-rotated on the threat from public cloud vendors. While these vendors may host open source projects, to date, there isn’t a single open source company I am aware of that has been fully displaced by a cloud provider.”

“Full displaced” is a gentle euphemism and leads me (at long last!) to my contribution to this discussion. Rather than focusing on the possible fate of the prey currently being pursued across the cloudy savannah (negotiations continue with David Attenborough to narrate the audio version of this post), let’s look at the scoreboard to see what is happening in some of the games between open source and the cloud that started earlier. Those other games aren’t over yet, but the outcomes look increasingly clear (cloudy, actually).

The fact is some of the very largest OSS companies have recently lost sales momentum, relevance, valuation, and/or their independence. And judging from the size and shape of the bite marks on their bodies, it looks like the work of the new apex predator, the cloud (and here ends the metaphor mixing).

Proponents of OSS winning the eating contest need an explanation for these companies diminished prospects, particularly during boom times for software companies and as stock markets hit all-time highs. They have not (yet) been “fully displaced”, but it is worth looking at the predicaments of the Hadoop companies, Pivotal, and, what was until recently the biggest of all open source companies, Red Hat.

The Hadoop Industrial Complex

Not that long ago, Hadoop and its commercial flag bearers were a big deal. Cloudera, HortonWorks and MapR collectively raised over $1.5 billion in capital ($1B, $248M, $280M respectively). That includes Intel’s whacky secondary investment in Cloudera – somehow premised on the idea that what we really needed were x86 instructions specifically for Hadoop – so the net investment was more like half that.

Cloudera and Hortonworks both IPOed, collectively raising another $335 million. Yet disappointing financial results forced them to move in together, and they quietly merged earlier this year, while their founders slipped out the side door. Their combined value dropped from $5.2 billion at the time the merger was announced to around $2.5 billion at this writing. Still private MapR was subsequently sold for scrap to HPE, who bragged they got “a very good deal” (insert your own Microstrategy joke).

Hadoop has left behind a trail of tears with customers who spent vast sums to construct “data lakes”, yet struggled to successfully deploy and manage them much less find a business return snorkeling in those lakes. Meanwhile, the big data business has moved to the cloud, by virtue of being both cheaper and easier. As Matthew Lodge said, “Ironically, there has been no Cloud Era for Cloudera.”

Alternative hypothesis (i.e. it wasn’t the cloud eating open source): Hadoop was just overhyped. The claim it would replace a variety of focused and mature database technologies made for a good TAM story, but Hadoop turned out to be a jack of all data trades but master of none. Dumping your valuable data in a lake also wasn’t a great metaphor. The lesson from Hadoop is, once again, we should be wary of grand technology promises about the “next big thing” that sweeps away everything that came before it.


(Disclosure: I worked on Cloud Foundry at VMware until it was spun off into Pivotal. It was open source from the outset, despite my troglodyte presence. Fortunately, I departed before it got foundationed).

Pivotal was an amalgam of acquisitions including Pivotal Labs, SpringSource and Greenplum, plus VMware’s investment in those businesses as well as building Cloud Foundry from scratch. Pivotal raised  $555 million in an April 2018 IPO at a price of $15. It had a peak value of $7.4 billion and subsequently missed a couple of quarters, citing “sales execution” problems and a “complex technology landscape” (which I submit is investor relations-ese for “cloud”). The valuation had fallen to $2.25 billion when it received an incestuous bailout offer from – wait for it – VMware, at – wait for it – $15 per share. Legal papers with allegations of self-dealing are probably already being served. Ironically, Cloud Foundry was originally designed as a service, but found itself ensnared in the complexities of selling to enterprises who would have to deploy and manage their own services. Instead, they opted for the cloud.

Alternative hypothesis: Pivotal got eaten by “Dockernetes” aka containers (ironically because Google was pissed off about Hadoop, but that is another story) which is of course open source, so the cloud had nothing to do with the company’s fleeting tenure as a public company. This alternative history is popular with senior Pivotal management who were busy selling consulting services when perhaps they should have been selling cloud services.

Red Hat

Last but not least is Red Hat, the longtime poster child for open source. Red Hat was the original (and for a long time the only) existence proof that you could build a good business around open source, and also the most successful. Yet the poster child is gone, off the table, and soon to be another footnote in the IBM middleware museum. Why? Because of the cloud.

Red Hat had billions in revenues, nice margins, billions in the bank, double digit growth, and until last year, the valuation of a high-flying growth stock. IBM paid $34 billion for Red Hat, the largest software acquisition ever. I argue elsewhere that IBM overpaid (Watson presumably helped set the price), but the fact Red Hat management and shareholders took IBM’s money underscores they didn’t believe the company had a future in the cloud era. That they were happy to get out at a price that represented their all-time high stock price just six months previously suggests little confidence in their ability to get back to that valuation, much less surpass it. And they took cash, foregoing any participation in the possibility of a Red Hat-led renaissance that reverses IBM’s ongoing and inexorable decline (likely a wise move).

To reuse some previous prose:

Red Hat has its own challenges (and at the acquisition price, has found a wonderful resolution that leaves IBM and its shareholders holding that bag). Red Hat may look like a gem to IBM (anything that isn’t shrinking would), but they too have a cloud relevance problem. The fact Red Hat is the poster child for commercial open source is an orthogonal irrelevance. Red Hat faces a very traditional technology industry problem: generational obsolescence. The bulk of their revenues come from “infrastructure-related offerings”, namely the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) server operating system. As computing shifts from customer data centers to the public cloud, RHEL is not moving along with it. You may have heard that the cloud runs on Linux. It does, it just doesn’t run on RHEL. AWS, Azure and Google don’t pay Red Hat for Linux (they do let customers run RHEL as a guest operating system if desired, but the case for paying grows ever more tenuous – if the hyper-scale clouds don’t need it, why do you?). This shrinking TAM finally started to bite in 2018 as Red Hat’s core growth slowed and they missed Wall Street estimates for two straight quarters, which is considered problematic for a growth stock, as evidenced by a third of their valuation disappearing. Those misses combined with their visibility going forward are likely the catalyst for Red Hat deciding it was finally time to give IBM a call.

Alternative hypothesis: Red Hat management, who were telling everyone who would listen that they had a great cloud strategy, looked around the industry to see who they could partner with to supercharge their really, really strong cloud strategy, and picked IBM… (ok, that is really a stretch, but I had to put something here).

The End of History Usually Isn’t

“Success is a lousy teacher” has been attributed to a lot of people, including Bill Gates. The current open source situation is eerily similar to that of Microsoft in the early years of the 21st century. The company had a good thing going and was very much enjoying the status quo. But as open source and SaaS shook up that cozy world, the company resisted change, preferring the previous world order.

Some open source reactions to the rise of cloud are eerily similar. It is perturbing when you think you have the perfect model and something then disrupts it.  Open source is not the End of History for software. End of History arguments are deeply unsatisfying, especially for technology, as they are almost always followed closely by new if unexpected history. The fact open source was a tenuous business strategy (relying on a loose affinity between projects and software companies) and not a business model is now being laid bare by the cloud.

Just as Microsoft and the previous generation of software developers ultimately had to accept and embrace change (some made it, some didn’t), so too does the world of commercial open source. Clinging to what you thought was an ideal and eternal model, in the face of contrary evidence, isn’t a good strategy. Adapt or die.

Open source is here to stay as a development model. It is hard to imagine any kind of infrastructure or developer software that isn’t open source. But there is work to do on the accompanying business strategy. The next great open source endeavor may be to make multi-cloud a reality, at least for key workloads. But the new associated business models will have to embrace services as the primary delivery model and make a serious commitment to a level of integration that is the hallmark of cloud services.

Thanks to my reviewers for helping drag me into the 21st century. The rest of you please tell me what I still don’t get.

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18 days ago
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Why is Trinidad such fertile ground for the Islamic State?

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Simon Cottee, Trinidad's Islamic State Problems, Lawfare, November 17, 2019.
In November 2013 Shane Crawford and two other men pulled off a double murder in a busy town in central Trinidad. Less than a month later all three were in Syria fighting for the Islamic State—the first Trinidadians, or Trinis (to use the local idiom), to do so. By the time the U.S. State Department added Crawford to its list of “Global Terrorists” in 2017, more than 240 Trini nationals had migrated to the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This makes Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a small twin-island republic in the Caribbean, one of the world’s biggest recruiting grounds, per capita, of the Islamic State.
Who are these recruits?
In a recent article published in the journal International Affairs, I presented demographic data on 70 of them:
  • Thirty-four percent are adult men, 23 percent are adult women and 43 percent are minors.
  • Of the adults, the ratio of males to females is 60:40. This places T&T at the top of the list of Western countries for female Islamic State migrants.
  • The average age at time of departure across all 40 of the adults is 34. This is unusual compared to age averages found for all other Western Islamic State contingents; travelers from other countries are, on average, nearly a decade younger.
  • Nearly all the adult men were employed at the time they departed to join the Islamic State. The vast majority—90 percent—can be categorized as middle class, while 10 percent can be categorized as lower class.
  • Among the men, nearly 80 percent were married at the time of leaving, while among the women all were married, with the sole exception of an 18 year old who left with her family. So, among the Trini individuals for whom we have data, there were no “jihadi brides,” and while in the European and North American context the norm was “bunches of guys” leaving, in Trinidad it was “bunches of families,” of which there were at least 26.
  • Forty-three percent are converts, which, though high, doesn’t deviate from the pattern in other Western Islamic State mobilizations, where converts are also over-represented.
  • Thirty percent had a criminal record or had been involved in criminal activities prior to their departure, which is also broadly in line with research on European foreign fighters.
  • Finally, the vast majority of those who left come from three areas in Trinidad: Rio Claro in the southeast, Chaguanas in west-central Trinidad, and Diego Martin in the northwest. The majority—nearly 70 percent—lived in Rio Claro on or near the Boos Settlement Muslim community led by Imam Nazim Mohammed.
  • Many attended Salafi mosques (of which there are fewer than five out of a total of 85 mosques in T&T; Salafi-Muslims in T&T are a tiny minority within a minority).
Push, pull, and a network:
What seems to have pushed them, although “push” is far too deterministic a metaphor, was a profound spiritual disaffection from the very best that Trinidad had to offer, which was a decent life of tranquility and ease on a tropical island that they came to see as sexually permissive, corrupt and lacking in any real value—a sort of anti-paradise. What seems to have “pulled” them to the Islamic State was a conviction that it was the true paradise that Trinidad claimed to be but was not: a pristine society of faith free of corruption, deviance and worldly temptation.

Just as important a question as why they radicalized and joined the Islamic State is how they radicalized and joined. This is really a question about recruiters, facilitators and networks. One of the most striking features about the entire cohort of Trini Islamic State travelers is just how networked it was. Everyone in it was connected to everyone else. They all knew each other, either because they were friends or because they were related.

The node at the center of the network was Imam Nazim Mohammed, who remains in Trinidad and presides over his own religious settlement (a sizable area of land that includes the mosque he leads and around 30 houses he owns) in the rural town of Rio Claro. Mohammed’s network has its roots in the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a group of black Muslims led by Yasin Abu Bakr. In July 1990, 114 men from Bakr’s group, including Mohammed and one of his sons, attempted to overthrow the government of T&T, effectively holding the country for ransom for six bloody days. They didn’t succeed, but the dark legacy of the attempted coup, of which the pro-Islamic State network in Trinidad is a part, lives on. Bakr and his men were imprisoned for their involvement but were pardoned in 1992. After their release, Mohammed began to distance himself from the al Muslimeen leader and eventually established his own religious community in the south of the country, where he embarked on a project of Islamic proselytization and disengaged altogether from domestic politics.
If the authorities in Trinidad are to repatriate its Islamic State-affiliated women, as I am suggesting they should, the price of repatriation must be a serious moral reckoning with what these women have done and, for the vast majority who took their children to Syria, the harms they inflicted on their children by effectively pimping them out to a merciless terrorist group. They cannot return as victims deserving of sympathy but must be held to scrupulous moral account.

This raises some difficult questions. One relates to the custodianship of the children, and whom they live with once they are returned to Trinidad. This is made all the more difficult because many of the children’s extended family members in Trinidad are part of the pro-Islamic State network there.

Another question has to do with capacity and cost: It will not be cheap to repatriate 40 or more children to Trinidad, and their care and rehabilitation over many years will require a long-term investment of resources.
Repatriating the men poses different issues. There is more at the link.
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20 days ago
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The Verge on the cottage industry of Amazon “preppers”

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a competitive industry appears in the middle of nowhere
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23 days ago
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James Barnor, ever young

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A conversation with the curator and editor of the book and traveling exhibition James Barnor: Ever Young.

James Barnor and Renée Mussai, 'Ever Young' studio at Rivington Place, London, 2010. Photo by Zoe Maxwell, courtesy of Autograph, London.

This article is being published online on Africa Is a Country only. The images appear courtesy of Autograph, London. These images are not under a creative commons license. These images are not for further distribution to any third party without prior written consent by Autograph, London.

In October 2010, I was one of seven African curators invited by the Tate Modern in London to talk about our recent exhibitions. During those few days we visited, as a group, Autograph at Rivington Place, then showing the photographic exhibition James Barnor: Ever Young. I was struck by this exhibition: the conceptualization, the history contained in the images, the power of the photography and of the curating, the beauty of and in the images, the finesse of the printing and the overall installation. A few months later, in 2011, I organized to show the exhibition at the South African National Gallery (SANG)—in partnership with Autograph and with the assistance of the British Council—where I was director at the time. It was the first tour of the exhibition following the inaugural Autograph show and significantly, the first—and perhaps only—to the African continent thus far. James Barnor attended the opening at the SANG and was so excited to see his images displayed abroad, he paid his own way from London to Cape Town to be there again for the closing week of the show a few months later.

Fast-forward seven years and guess who I ran into at the 2018 Paris Photo last year, and then in June this year as a fellow resident artist at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris? Why, none other than the same master photographer James Barnor! I caught up with the legendary Ghanaian photographer on the occasion of his 90th birthday celebrations and his latest solo exhibition entitled Colors then running at Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière in Paris.

James Barnor, Eva, London, 1960s. Courtesy Autograph, London.

Barnor filled me in on his rags to riches story: the exhibition Steve Flynn and Rachel Pepper were involved in organizing at the Acton Arts Festival in 2004 via the Acton Arts Forum; his subsequent inclusion in the exhibition Ghana at 50 curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in London in 2007; and following that the meeting between curator Renée Mussai and himself that led to his first major solo entitled Ever Young: James Barnor at Autograph, London in the autumn of 2010, which also doubled as his retrospective exhibition, touring internationally since.

The Autograph show set the standard and art professionals, institutions and collectors started to take notice of Barnor’s work with the exhibition travelling to Cape Town; the Impressions Gallery in Bradford in the United Kingdom (2013); Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris (2015); Stony Island Art Bank, Chicago, USA (2016); Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue (BAND), Toronto, Canada (2016); The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA (2016). This was after a smaller iteration exhibition preview at Harvard University’s Rudenstine Gallery in 2010, a few months prior to the opening at Autograph. As a result Barnor’s work has since been acquired by international private and public collections in the United Kingdom such as the Eric and Louise Franck Collection (now at Tate Britain), Government Art Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery in the UK, as well as further afield including the Wedge Collection (Canada) and Musée du quai Branly (France), etc.

Barnor’s photographs were first formally displayed in Ghana in an exhibition at the British Council and Silverbird Lounge, Accra Mall (2012). Since then his pictures have been included in group exhibitions on photography held at Nasher Museum, Duke University, USA (2012); Tate Britain, England (2012); Tropenmuseum, Netherlands (2014) and in 2015 at The Photographers’ Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Foam Fotographiemuseum, (Netherlands).

James Barnor, Self portrait with Kwame Nkrumah, Roy Ankrah and his wife Rebecca, Accra, c.1952. Courtesy Autograph, London.

Since his gallery Clémentine de la Féronnière showed Ever Young: James Barnor in Paris (2015) in partnership with Autograph, it has been busy days with Barnor’s work presented at the 11th biennale des Rencontres de Bamako, Mali (2017), Musée du quai Branly, vitrine jardin, Paris, France (2017-18), Mupho Musée de la Photographie, Saint Louis, Sénégal and Gallery 1957, Kempinski Hotel, Accra, Ghana, the latter two in 2018.

The interview is based on a spontaneous “stream of consciousness” (her words) via on-going email conversations since June 2019 with Renée Mussai.

Riason Naidoo

What was it like to see James Barnor’s work for the first time?

Renée Mussai

The writer, artist and curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim kindly introduced me to James in early 2009, if I remember correctly, after she had organized an exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives for Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence in 2007, showing a selection of existing prints from Barnor’s archives. At this time, we were in the middle of a Heritage Lottery-funded archive program at Autograph, with the mission to promote and preserve the work of key—and often unrecognized—artists working in photography and cultural identity politics, so the timing was perfect.

Encountering a treasure trove of negatives, vintage prints, and transparencies reflecting the breadth of his practice spanning sixty years in a seemingly “ordinary” apartment suite in the Elderly People’s Home in Brentford, where James Barnor still resides today, was overwhelming and humbling … in many ways a dream come true for a curator with a vested interest in the archive: such incredibly fascinating history, and culture, stored in an array of Tupperware [food containers], plastic bags, cardboard boxes, often still inside original transparent or brown paper negative pouches, with hand-written notes to contextualize and—importantly—James’ voice and remarkable memory to give meaning and context to it all … That day was a great moment, and one I will always be grateful for—to both James, for his work and his trust, and Nana, for the introduction that opened the door to a fruitful, long-term collaboration with the artist.

James Barnor, Drum cover girl Marie Hallowi #1, Rochester, Kent, 1966. Courtesy Autograph, London.

Over the past decade, and intensively between 2009-2011, I—as well as colleagues working in the team—have spent many, many hours listening to James’ stories, his transatlantic journeys, while researching his extensive archive of photographs … It’s been a pleasure and a privilege. As you know, and anyone who has met James knows, he is an endlessly fascinating person: he epitomizes “(for)ever young” perfectly, and poignantly.

Riason Naidoo

What was going through your mind?

Renée Mussai

Joy, curiosity and the overwhelming sense that everything we have done, collectively, as an organization towards the development of this new archive—a photography research program focused on showcasing post-war culturally diverse photography and different “missing chapters”—and personally as a curator working in this field, was culminating in this moment. The main objective and stated mission of the archive program I was leading at the time was to ensure that important but often overlooked practitioners like James Barnor and their crucial contribution to the cultural/global history of photography are not forgotten. The intention was to advocate for their practice to be recognized as key “chapters” missing from the wider narratives: re-introduced into mainstream, for lack of a better word, cultural histories of art or photography as well as the collections of major institutions who can ensure the legacies of the work long term.

As I researched James Barnor’s archive, which was later temporarily relocated to Autograph, I was amazed to find ten-thousands of negatives—many still in their original Kodak sleeves, unopened since the 1950s and 60s when they were originally produced—and even more so amazed to see that the work he produced for Drum magazine was in fact shot in London, featuring a multinational host of aspiring black cover models, to then be redistributed on the continent …

This was an archive of images that capture individually, and more so collectively, cultures in transformation, new identities coming into being—both “here” e.g. UK and “there” e.g. Ghana—which brilliantly illustrated the fragmented experience of migration, of modernity, of diaspora formation, the shaping of cosmopolitan, modern societies and selves, of social mobility, and changing representation of blackness, desire and beauty across time and cultures … I personally do not know of any other African studio photographer from that period who left the continent to practice abroad—professionally, as well as to study—whose camera captures such a diverse range of subjects, in and outside the studio confines, and whose work travels—spans continent—in the way James’ photography does.

James Barnor, Untitled #1, Drum shoot (unpublished) at Campbell-Drayton Studio, London, 1967. Courtesy Autograph, London.

A majority of the images that I eventually selected for the exhibition had not been seen before, in a curated exhibition—the original film stock, untouched for decades, was digitally preserved first, then later printed from restored negatives and transparencies. My curatorial objective was to build a show that spoke to different chrono-political and transcultural moments: the “here” and “there” in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, as mentioned earlier … to create a curatorial dialogue across time and place. Part of this story was to highlight Barnor’s own extraordinary transatlantic journey, and how that impacts on and cross-pollinated, if you will, his practice: after a decade of practicing and studying in the UK, he returned to Ghana with the gift of color photography in the early 1970s, opening one of the first—if not the first—color processing laboratories in Accra … So, one of the things that always struck me was how his archive speaks not only of the journey of the photographer, but also to the journey of the medium of photography itself, as it evolves and expands across the world.

Riason Naidoo

Can you take me through the process from that first moment of meeting James to the exhibition at Autograph? (Please, if you can, also describe the technical details of digitization of slides, printing, storage, etc.)

Renée Mussai

I first met James a few months before his 80th birthday, and on his birthday, I told him that we had just secured the first of many exhibitions to come: at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was over the moon … I remember him telling me that “for someone with no secondary school education or A-levels”—his words!—“this was quite something …” The exhibition opened there in the spring of 2010, as a prelude to the retrospective at Autograph later that same year. At Rivington Place his work was shown [in the main gallery space on the ground floor] alongside a display of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Paris Albums 1900 [displayed in the smaller space upstairs], to open a conversation between photography and the politics of representation 110 years apart. At Harvard, we also held an exhibition-opening symposium on photography and diaspora, which I had the pleasure to moderate, with key figures in the curatorial and scholarly field: the late Okwui Enwezor, Deborah Willis, and Kobena Mercer … I believe it may be online somewhere?

During this period—every time James Barnor came to visit us at Autograph, he was laughing out loud—or smirking—either way always beautiful to witness—the moment he stepped into the office: there would be a white-gloved archivist buried in boxes of hundreds, thousands of his negatives, busy cataloguing and transferring original material into archival sleeves and boxes; another member of the team, busy scanning prints and transparencies; large computer screens all displaying Barnor’s photographs being digitally preserved, restored and retouched back to their original state, while other colleagues including myself were working on different aspects of “Operation Barnor” that had taken over Autograph’s offices for the time being … that time being at least twelve months if not closer to eighteen months! Which, for a small charitable arts organization, is a big investment in terms of resources.

James Barnor, Selina Opong, Policewoman #10, Ever Young Studio, Accra, c.1954. Courtesy Autograph, London.

The exhibition I organized in 2010 emerged as a direct result of this urgent and rigorous initial process of research, cataloguing, high resolution scanning, digital preservation, and contextualizing led by Autograph and our dedicated if small archive team—and, of course, in-depth curation. The show represents only select aspects of Barnor’s archive: James and I often spoke about how many countless other exhibitions could and should be curated in years to come, from his wide-ranging practice. I’m very glad to know that this is now happening, and excited to see what other curators, gallerists and archivists will introduce.

Riason Naidoo

I saw the exhibition at Autograph in 2010. It was amazing. Some prints were blown up really large and worked fantastically well and then you retained the small-scale postcard size of the original photo album prints. What was the thinking behind that?

Renée Mussai

Thank you … from a curator’s perspective the idea was to create a dialogue or juxtaposition between the several stages of his practice—street and studio, London and Accra—and to represent the quality of his work at different scales: to make a bold statement, if you will. To introduce his work as not merely an archive of prints related to his country of origin (as it had been seen before, at BCA for example) but as key contemporary artworks reflecting his talent and visual politics of (trans)cultural history and identity, re-positioned in a gallery context, printed, largely, from digitally preserved internegatives—new surrogate large format negatives made from restored scans of the originals. Enlarging the studio—as well as the street—portraits brought all the finer details and intricacies of his prints to life, magnified: his trademark studio figurine, the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, and importantly representing the Drum models such as the formidable Erlin Ibreck or broadcaster Mike Eghan larger-than-life. It imbued the works, and his sitters, with a presence and stature: commanding admiration, and claiming space. Seeing the works at this scale enabled a different viewing experience … At the same time, I felt it was important to preserve and respect the intrinsic quality of the archive; hence the exhibition featured both, modern and vintage prints. The show was conceived as a transnational dialogue, a curatorial conversation across time, and place, enabling the [art] world and wider community to celebrate a key figure in the global, cultural history of photography.

James Barnor, Drum cover girl Erlin Ibreck at Trafalgar Square, London, 1966. Courtesy Autograph, London.
Riason Naidoo

Can you also fill me in on what happened before Autograph and after (SANG) that you were still responsible for? How did that feel as curator of the exhibition and what was it like witnessing James experiencing all that attention for the first time?

Renée Mussai

As a curator working within an institution advocating for black photographers to be recognized for several decades (Autograph was established in 1988), it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to help Barnor achieve the recognition he so deserves, enjoys, and importantly—during his lifetime. Too often this happens too late, and/or posthumously. I was very pleased that we at Autograph were in a position to invest the necessary resources at a crucial time, and with the exhibition’s critical international reception, and everything that has happened as a result since, especially the acquisitions by major public institutions as these investments ensure the permanent legacy of his work …

Working with James’s archive constituted an important phase in my curatorial career and one I look back to with pride, and gratitude. It’s always wonderful to be part of something that’s transformative for an artist’s practice—and especially so for a nonagenarian!—as well as addressing a gap or what we tend to describe as a “missing chapter” in existing narratives.

The exhibition at Harvard’s Hutchins Center (formerly Du Bois Institute) was the first exhibition of Barnor’s work I curated, following the initial phase of cataloguing, digitizing, archiving—it was a kind of “prelude” to the 2010 autumn retrospective, if you will. In addition to international touring venues, works were also loaned to several group exhibitions internationally—such as Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, organized by The Photographers’ Gallery and shown at the Shenzen and Misheng Art Museum, Shanghai, China or Swinging Sixties London—Photography in the Capital of Cool at Foam in Amsterdam. Major acquisitions we negotiated resulted in James’ work to be featured in blockbuster museum exhibitions such as Another London: International Photographers Capture London Life 1930-1980 at Tate Britain, London; as well as at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of Staying Power. These moments are always a highlight: when our curatorial work directly affects the diversification of institutional—or “mainstream”—collecting.

Another highlight was witnessing James Barnor participate on the main stage at the Black Portraitures symposium in Paris, for instance, where he was on a panel with other great African photographers such as the late J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikeire.

James Barnor, Drum cover girl Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966. Courtesy Autograph, London.

In 2015, I had the pleasure to edit his first monograph, which was published in 2015 with his gallery Clémentine de la Féronnière, in partnership with Autograph.

The exhibition is still traveling, on and off—we are currently in the process of confirming the next iteration of the Ever Young: James Barnor at Casa Africa, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain for 2020.

Riason Naidoo

How you feel about it all looking back?

Renée Mussai

When I first met James Barnor in 2009, I knew then that once preserved, and re-presented within a gallery or museum context, these photographs would be celebrated widely, for the illuminating visual evidence they offer not only of an important chapter now deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of the UK’s national story with regards to race, diversity and representation, but the wider cultural history of photography and most importantly: African history, African contemporary art, Ghanaian history of independence, global cultural politics, and visual culture.

Looking back today, after almost a decade of continued advocacy by Autograph, I feel proud that this mission has been achieved … and that others are continuing this work and keeping Barnor’s practice in the public eye: my colleagues at Autograph, fellow curators and writers such as yourself, dedicated gallerists such as Clémentine de la Féronnière, other scholars and graduate students and researchers … as well as his peers, of course.

But above all, I am delighted that James is alive and well to enjoy the much-deserved recognition, if late in life, traveling with his work, meeting new people and forging alliances.

James Barnor, Drum magazine cover with Marie Hallowi, East Africa edition, June 1966. Courtesy Autograph, London.
Riason Naidoo

The book James Barnor: Ever Young was published by les éditions Clémentine de la Féronnière in 2015 in partnership with Autograph. It’s a beautiful publication. Can you talk a little bit about the book and the collaboration, if possible?

Renée Mussai

Thank you. The book project was championed by gallerist Clémentine de la Féronnière and Sarah Preston of Neutral Grey agency who first approached us in 2014, I believe, to discuss a collaboration … we then began planning the tour of the original Ever Young: James Barnor exhibition to Clémentine’s gallery in Paris. Since there was no publication to accompany the show, the obvious next step was to produce a catalogue and that’s how the partnership ensued. Given that we had already digitized and selected key works from James’ archive over the years, including many additional works not featured in the exhibition, it made sense to collaborate and create a book that reflected the curatorial vision of the inaugural show for James’ first artist monograph, in a series of chapters … It gave me the opportunity to finally write the story of the exhibition in my opening essay, and to reflect on the work and process. We also invited the great editor, writer, publisher and broadcaster Margaret Busby OBE and leading photography critic professor Francis Hodgson—who had originally reviewed the exhibition for the Financial Times in 2010—into a conversation with James, which was edited and transcribed for the book. Kobena Mercer’s brilliant text “People Get Ready”—also originally commissioned as an extended exhibition review/essay of our 2010 show by the New Humanist—was also reproduced in the book.

Exhibitions disappear, eventually, but books as you know represent a permanent legacy; hence publishing continues to be of utmost importance: knowing that a copy of James’ first artist monograph is forever lodged at the British Library makes me—and I am sure I can speak on behalf of my colleagues at Autograph—very, very happy indeed. It’s part of our original, and ongoing, critical mission to generate new knowledge, affect wider narratives and advocate for black photographers and artists globally.

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