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Rare Portraits of Kings and Commoners from 20th-Century Nigeria

Reclining young lady Hand-colored photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1950 Benin City, Nigeria Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge Collection EEPA 2009-007 National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution, Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Stella Osarhiere Gbinigie (age 16)” (1950), Benin City, Nigeria, photograph and hand-colored print (Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, all images courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)

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.

Alonge - self-portrait - seated, c. 1942, Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Self-portrait, seated outside wearing formal attire and spats” (1942), Benin City, Nigeria, Glass plate negative (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)

Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria opened last month to coincide with the century marking of Nigeria’s colonial unification in 1914. Along with the photographs by Alonge are artifacts from the Benin Royal Court, as well as some of Alonge’s cameras and equipment.

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.

Woman standing with flowers; clock on table;"Brasso metal polish" [Dame Merry Oritsetimeyin Ehanire nee Cardigan (Osagie Ehanire's mother)]
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Dame Merry Oritsetimeyin Ehanire née Cardigan” (1940), Benin City, Glass plate negative (Chief S.O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Portrait of Chief Francis Edo Osagie” (1960), Benin City, Silver gelatin print with hand-coloring (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Madame Ogiugo” (1960), Hand-colored photograph (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Wedding portrait” (1937), Glass plate negative (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Oba Akenzua II, c. 1937 [Matphson/Matthieson - colonial on left], Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Visit of the Earl of Plymouth [right] to the Oba of Benin, Oba Akenzua II, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Oba Akenzua II holds the coral regalia of Oba Ovonramwen, returned by the British in 1938. Sir John Macpherson, Governor-General of Nigeria, stands on the left” (1935), Glass plate (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Boy with tennis racquet and trophy, Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Prize winner” (1937), Glass plate negative (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Daughter of Oba Eweka II, wearing commemorative cloth from coronation of King George VI, May 1937,” Silver gelatin vintage (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Oba Akenzua II greets Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (not shown) on a Royal visit to Benin City. On the left is Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, first Premier of the Western Region, 1952-1959. On the right is Sir John Rankine, Governor, Western Region, Nigeria, 1954-1960,” Silver gelatin print and hand-colored (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Commemorative cloth of Iyoba, Queen Mother of Benin (photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, 1981) (Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives,  National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
Solomon Osagie Alonge, “Self-portrait with painted studio backdrop” (1942),  Silver gelatin print, with sepia tone (Chief S. O. Alonge Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)

Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria continues at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Avenue, Southwest, Washington, DC) through January 10, 2016. 

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