For over five decades Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge photographed the royal court and everyday life of Benin, Nigeria. Drawing on their collection of over 2,000 glass plate and large format film negatives, as well as around 100 prints, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art is exhibiting some of his rarely seen photographs.
Born in 1911, he started with a Kodak Brownie and worked his way up to his own studio in Benin City called Ideal Photography Studio, establishing himself among the first professional West African photographers. While at court he documented the lavish ceremonies and pomp of the obas (the Benin kings), in the studio he captured portraits of the whole spectrum of the community. More importantly, the photographs trace through a time when, as Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, people were choosing how to portray themselves.
As curator and senior archivist Amy Staples explained in a release: “Through his portrait photography in the Ideal Photo Studio, Alonge provided local residents — many for the first time — with the opportunity to represent themselves to themselves as dignified African subjects.” Max Kutner adds at Smithsonian Magazine: “Though the British remained in the region until 1960 (Alonge photographed Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1956), Alonge helped usher in an era of Nigerians representing themselves and acting as keepers of their own history.”
Despite this unique insight into Nigerian history, Alonge, who died in 1994, remains mostly obscure, especially outside of Africa. Yet his photographs are a valuable portal into the traditions of the Benin court, as well as self-portrayal in portraiture, both colonial and not.