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315 9. Likeness or Not: Musings on Portraiture in Canonical African Art and Its Implications for African Portrait Photography J E A N B O R G A T T I The evocative power of named masquerades among the Okpella, an Edo-speaking group who live seventy miles north of Benin City in southern Nigeria, drew me into a cross-cultural study of portrait images in the late 1970s.1 Combing the literature using a definition for portraiture that combined “personal reference,” “memory,” and “intentionality” brought numerous cases to light of images that evoked personal presence without representational likeness. I also sought out colleagues recently returned from field research in West Africa and asked them to reconsider their data in the light of my findings. This work formed the basis of Likeness and Beyond: Portraiture in Africa and the World, an exhibition and accompanying monograph produced by the Center for African Art in 1990, and tandem issues of African Arts in 1990 and 1991. The response to Likeness and Beyond suggested to me that we in the West had yet to get beyond physical likeness as the defining characteristic of the portrait image, rather than seeing it as one strategy given prominence by the discussion of portraiture in Western art.2 However, the emergence of a discourse on photography in Africa refocuses attention on portraiture. New portraiture has proliferated through the use of media and techniques introduced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries —not only in photography but also in painting.3 Photography and other more representational modes of art practice have had their effects on older forms— not the least of which is the visual reinforcement of their identification with 316 Figure 9.1. Portrait of Delta State Governor Chief James Onanefe Ibori flanked by portraits of the owner of the house and his wife, 2002. Drawing attention to the portraits and providing background is a flat-screen TV showing an international soccer match. Photograph by Jean Borgatti. Likeness or Not 317 particular person(alitie)s. Older forms have also had their effects on the African portrait photograph. Compare a seventeenth-century Benin plaque showing the Oba flanked by his retainers and low-relief medallions, the heads of Portuguese soldiers in profile ,4 with a set of photographs in the home of a Delta Edo political aspirant. In visual terms, the central figure dominates the Benin plaque because of its size, depth of relief, seated posture, and frontal orientation, in addition to its position. The flanking figures, shown in partial profile and kneeling, support and share in the Oba’s importance. The Portuguese soldiers, as merely heads in low relief, are revealed as lesser, but arguably important, and we can interpret this in terms of their economic and military contributions to Benin imperial success. Move to the twenty-first century and the reception area of a recently constructed villa outside Warri in the Niger Delta, a rather long and narrow room. The room’s focal point is a tableau along the end wall featuring three large-format color print photographs. A closer look reveals that the central portrait is really a clock and is clearly labeled with the name of its subject and the (presumed) giver of this portrait as a gift: Delta State Governor Chief James Onanefe Ibori. The flanking portraits represent the owner of the house and his wife. All three wear “traditional” Delta costume. Drawing attention to the portraits and providing background is a flat-screen TV showing an international soccer match. The wealth manifest in the marble-tiled floors, the padded chairs, and satellite TV stems from the opportunities provided by association with the government and itsaccesstotheresourcesderivedfromthesaleofNigerDeltaoil.Thecomparison may be fortuitous, given the time difference, but the similarities are not accidental . The images in both cases are organized hierarchically, with relative size and placement providing clues to the relative importance of the figures—and in both instances, references to Western culture in the background underline the contributions of Western political and economic agents to the Edo participants. The Portuguese brought great prosperity to the Benin kingdom through trade, and soldiers fighting as mercenaries in the king’s army helped the monarchy extend its boundaries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.5 European and American oil interests in the Niger Delta also brought great prosperity into Nigeria in the latter part of the twentieth century, some of which has trickled down from the Nigerian government to Niger Delta and other area politicians. Jean Borgatti 318...


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