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Reviewed by:
  • Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria by Chief S.O. Alonge
  • Mark Auslander (bio)
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria
National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC
September 17, 2014–July 31, 2016

“Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria” explores several overlapping historical relationships: between colonialism, postcolonialism, and photography; between the medium of photography and classic Benin Kingdom metal plaques and hip ornaments; and between photography as a mode of documenting and constituting interior domestic life and photography as a technology of royal ritual action. The exhibition emerges out of a collection of 3,000 images, including many glass plates and silver gelatin prints by Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge, the first official photographer to the royal court of Benin, now housed at the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art. The photographs are juxtaposed with works drawn from the Museum’s significant collection of classic Benin art.

Lead curator and chief archivist Amy Staples, co-curator Bryna Freyer, and consulting curator Flora Kaplan contextualize Alonge (1911–1994) in terms of an extended history of visual politics in the Benin Kingdom. The capacity to establish authoritative framings of visual experience and to organize apprehensions of dynamic exchanges between visible and invisible domains has long been central to royal ideologies of sovereignty in the kingdom (Freyer 1989, Gore 2007, Ben-Amos Girshick 2007). The adornment, painting, and scarification of the bodies of the Oba, Queen Mother, and others associated with the royal court, in stasis or in motion, dramatize and help constitute the flow of ancestral potencies into the mortal world. In many respects, power in the Benin Kingdom is a supremely visual technology, radiantly binding together royals and commoners while diminishing, even crushing, the capacity of opponents. Visual display is often used to dramatize structural oppositions, while simultaneously highlighting the sovereign’s sacral capacities to transcend all opposition (Nevadomsky 1983–84).


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1.

“Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria” at the National Museum of African Art. Central gallery of exhibition, showing both the studio side and court photography.

Photo: Franko Khoury

The exhibition cleverly deploys this aesthetic of dramatized, and transcended, opposition throughout the installation. The opening hallway displays on the left a large, blown-up reproduction of Reginald Kerr Granville’s well-known image of the sacked place courtyard following the 1897 British punitive expedition. Affixed to poles before the image are three important royal Benin bronze plaques, evocative of the great cache of bronzes looted by the British Admiralty and eventually acquired by museums and collectors around [End Page 88] the world. Facing this assemblage, a large color photograph by George Osodi of the present Oba Erediauwa, who has reigned from 1979 to the present, in full regalia, looks back at this moment of crisis from the vantage point of restored sovereignty a century later. An adjacent carved Benin elephant tusk (a monopoly of the monarch) depicts the king with legs of mudfish, further emphasizing the king’s capacity to mediate between visible and invisible levels of experience, binding the spirit world (erinmwin) and the material world (agbon) on behalf of all his people (Gore 2007:29–30, Blackmun 1997).


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Solomon Osagie Alonge

Stella Osarhiere Gbinigie, age 16 (ca. 1950) Hand-colored photograph

Chief S.O. Alonge Collection, EEPA 2009-007-1787 Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Photo: courtesy National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution


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Solomon Osagie Alonge

Rest After Toil (ca. 1937)

Photograph

Chief S.O. Alonge Collection, EEPA 2009-007-0080 Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Photo: courtesy National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution


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4.

Solomon Osagie Alonge

Young man and handrail (ca. 1950)

Photograph

Chief S.O. Alonge Collection, EEPA 2009-007-0101 Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Photo: courtesy National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

The next section deftly reviews the power of photography in the colonial project in Nigeria. Images of the Oba Ovonramwen, who reigned 1888–1897, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1937-2108
Print ISSN
0001-9933
Pages
pp. 88-91
Launched on MUSE
2016-05-04
Open Access
No
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