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Unveiling the Shadows of the Past: J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije - The Hidden Icon of Photography in Africa

Curated by Aïda Muluneh

12th January – 20th February 2024
Efiɛ Gallery, Dubai
United Arab Emirates

Installation View

A Ghanaian newlywed couple stand proudly arm in arm while dressed in elegant western attire. The bride dons a long white wedding gown and an elaborate embroidered headdress with a long white trail that falls in a pile on the carpeted floor. The groom wears a smart black suit with a prominent top hat. Both wear white gloves. The photograph, titled “Colonial Wedding” dates to circa 1930 in Accra, Ghana by Ghanaian photographer J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije. The black and white photograph is one of 25 by the iconic African photographer on view in Unveiling the Shadows of the Past: J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije – The Hidden Icon of Photography in Africa.

Bruce-Vanderpuije’s photographs tell the story of Ghanaian modern history through the lens of a local. As the adage goes, the pen is mightier than the sword, but in Bruce-Vanderpuije’s case, the camera’s power exceeds even that of the pen to capture a crucial moment in Ghana’s history—one which witnessed the nation still in the throes of British colonial rule yet on the cusp of independence, just before a moment of great social, cultural and political change.

To understand the context in which Bruce-Vanderpuije was photographing, it is crucial to comprehend a summary of Ghanaian history. After the unification of various Soninke people around 300 CE the Empire of Ghana took form around the northwest of present-day Ghana also encompassing what is today Mauritania, Mali and Senegal. It was known as the Gold Coast due to the large quantities of gold that existed there. From 1600 European colonizers arrived in the region eager to acquire as much gold and Ivory as possible, before they went on to trade in captive Africans during the Transatlantic slave trade. In 1874 the territory was officially made a British colony and was thereafter called the “Gold Coast Colony.” Centuries later, after decades of tireless efforts led by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s nationalist leader and architect of the country’s independence on March 6, 1957, the United Kingdom released its grip and Ghana became an independent nation, with Nkrumah as its first African-born Prime Minister and President—a leader America’s Martin Luther King would look to for inspiration in nonviolent action and change.

J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije captured the birth of modern-day Ghana. Through his camera lens he documented for the world the most historic events in modern Gold Coast 20th century history. Born on March 7, 1899, to Emmanuel Vanderpuije and the Eleanor Afua Bruce of the Otublohum Royal family in Jamestown, British Accra, while attending school in Accra, J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije took up photography as a hobby. It soon became his profession. As one of the few photographers during pre-independence Ghana and one who greatly excelled at capturing a variety of subjects, from daily life to government function, J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije became one of the leading photographers entrusted for government functions and to produce campaigns for international companies. In 1922, he established Deo Gratias Studio in Accra alongside his sons Isaac Hudson and Ernest John. The studio, which is now managed by his granddaughter Kate Tamakloe Vanderpuije, is the oldest known operating photographic studio in Ghana. It opened during the height of J.K. Bruce- Vanderpuije’s aspirations to use photography to capture the beauty and history of the Gold Coast during a time of great change. Through Deo Gratias Studio he and his family documented and preserved Ghana’s visual history for close to one hundred years. Now spanning three generations, Bruce-Vanderpuije’s family has amassed what is considered to be the most extensive collection of 20th-century Ghanaian photographs worldwide.

A further significance of J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije’s photographic studio in the colonial capital of Accra was its ability to capture the emergence and battling of two elite groups: the traditional Chiefs and royals donning traditional Ghanaian attire and the western businessmen dressed in suits and ties. Such contrasting images appear frequently in most of Bruce-Vanderpuije’s photographs. There were three main classes of elites in the Gold Coast: the families of traditional rulers; British colonial officials; and Western-educated Africans. Bruce-Vanderpuije captures all of them as well as the at times complex social constructs of the period, ranging from the extent of social influence elites had based on close personal relations between themselves to the collective effort to disseminate such acquired values to less privileged people.

The Deo Gratias Studio offered a way for most Ghanaians and foreigners to have their photographs taken, with the latter sending the images back home to their families who lived abroad. Under colonial rule, photographs had to be taken of governors, various state functions and gatherings and the presentation of awards. Bruce- Vanderpuije’s photographic studio thus offered an alternative view of life in Ghana as well as a way for family members and friends to communicate with each other from afar.

The power behind J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije’s images lies in the pride and determination of each sitter captured during a period in which two worlds merge into one: Ghanaian traditional heritage and western style modernity. In Unveiling the Shadows of the Past some of Bruce-Vanderpuije’s are displayed. He portrays vibrant street scenes in Accra where western style early 20th century vehicles drive amid a busy marketplace with Ghanaian women balancing items on their head wrapped in protective cloth brushing shoulders with Ghanaian men on bicycles in shorts, a white shirt and a tie. In other images, tribal chiefs in their traditional robes boasting beautifully colored patterns sit proudly amid a street of parked western cars, a photograph of the second “Miss Ghana” with Kwame Nkrumah dressed proudly in a Kente cloth (also known as sacred fabric made of interwoven cloth strips native to the Akan tribe in Ghana) both beaming with joy and young Ghanaians waiting in line to purchase goods from a mobile butcher’s shop, also dressed in shorts, long pants and checkered button down shirts. In other images are ceremonial processions on the streets of Accra where men don both local and western garments marching proudly.

Bruce-Vanderpuije’s images capture the bittersweet beauty of modern-day early 20th century Ghana on the brink of transition as it shifts from British colonial rule to independence. His and his family’s photographs offer a visual proof a time of reckoning with the past and the present, a search for identity and a desire and quest to stay true to Ghanaian tradition and heritage. His photographs serve as rare reminders of this crucial period in Ghana’s history—ones which continue to teach not just Ghanaians but the rest of the world about a moment of great transformation and significance to an understanding of the colonial and post-colonial legacy of Africa— one of the continent’s first nation to break free from colonial rule.

Exhibition text written by Rebecca Anne-Proctor