The exhibition at the Newark Museum “Royals & Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria's Monarchs” showcases the latest body of work, Nigeria Monarchs, by Nigerian photographer George Osodi. In 2012 Osodi embarked on an extended project photographing 100 Nigerian traditional rulers amidst the many trappings of their positions. By looking at tradition through a contemporary lens, Osodi continues a conversation that has long been associated with the discussion on African arts.
Osodi brings his deeply empathetic perspective to his subject matter as a fellow Nigerian. He positions himself as an insider, thereby gaining legitimacy in front of a Nigerian audience as he sets out to “document Africa from an African perspective.” His work challenges perceptions of Africa created by the long history of colonial imagery. Compiling a contemporary archive of Nigerian monarchs seen in their environment, he hopes to foster a sense of identity in the young generation in Nigeria that is increasingly urban and less connected to its past.
For this exhibition, curator Christa Clarke gathered together forty of the large, richly colored photographs from the Nigeria Monarchs series. These images present twenty-two male and female rulers shown in conjunction with items of regalia from the Museum collection. Organized in three sections plus an introduction, this exhibition was one of the largest exhibitions of African contemporary art held at the Newark Museum.
An introduction comprising an excerpt from an Al Jazeera documentary, wall texts, and map shed light on the long history and complicated narratives of the Nigerian kingdoms and the geographical breadth of the project. Framed in light-colored wood, the photographs were hung chronologically against walls painted alternately forest green and white with a concern for conveying the geographical, ethnic, religious, economic, and gendered breadth of the series (Fig. 1). The viewer was taken on a cultural journey through modern Nigeria, where hundreds of territorial kingdoms, many of them centuries old, are still in existence. They are governed by traditional rulers, who, despite having no constitutional power, play an essential role at the local level, resolving conflicts within their communities and providing institutional safety valves for state bureaucracies that are often inadequate. There are three classes of kings: the original monarchs are the first-class kings, the second-class monarchs were created by the British during colonial rule, and the third-class kings have been created by the Nigerian federal government. Because of this classification, prejudice can cloud their interactions. Osodi sees this series as a way of promoting harmony while being an instrument of positive change at a time when instability is threatening Nigeria.
Three photographs—two portraits of Osodi's mother's king and one candid shot taken at the occasion of Prince Charles's visit to the Emir of Zauzau—at the entrance of the exhibition illustrated Osodi's use of the three pictorial strategies through which he apprehends his subjects: ethnography, documentary, and portraiture. He carefully and explicitly mingles all three to create a body of work that speaks of the tribal in contemporary terms while inevitably contending with these strategies historical residues.
Frontal and side view portraits were interspersed with scenes of the monarchs posing with their retinue. Each monarch was represented by one or two images, which allowed for a broad representation of the ethnic, religious, and economic diversity of the kingdoms.
The issue of consultation and agency was of primary importance, and a significant factor in distinguishing this body of work from an earlier tradition of colonial photography that put the colonial photographer in total control of the means of production. When requesting an audience, Osodi adapted his approach to the cultural ways of each kingdom. He then asked the monarchs how they wished to be photographed and remembered. Many chose to follow African portraiture conventions and favored a frontal pose. As they sit solemn and dignified on a throne gazing directly into the camera, they seem frozen in time. However, it was the here and now that Osodi captured in the candid shots of the Emir of Kano in various settings in the royal compound. Hung together in one room, they provided a welcome change from the formality of royal portraiture that dominated the other sections.
Through the medium of color photography, which makes the subject almost palpable, Osodi records in visual terms the dichotomy between the historical and the contemporary. His formal compositions, orchestration of vibrant colors with scales of reds often dominant, and emphasis on texture and materiality evoke the golden age of European portraiture. The portrait of the Pere of Isaba Kingdom sitting on his throne in all his regalia is a perfect illustration of this lineage (Fig. 2). However, in another image Osodi situates the Pere in the contemporary realities of modern-day Nigeria, showing him standing in a dusty courtyard against the backdrop of the palace's gates. This dichotomy is even more explicit in the wonderful portrait of the Ooni of Ife (Fig. 3), who sits relaxed, his head resting on his hand. While his richly embroidered robe, foot cushion, beaded crown, and retinue of attendants emphasize his status as a traditional ruler, elements of contemporary life like A/C units on the walls and the Kleenex box on the sofa puncture this vision frozen in time.
Osodi's images and focus on culture tend to invite an ethnographic reading. However, the close attention to facial expressions—Osodi's embrace of portraiture—draws the viewer's attention past appearances to the individual behind the social and suggests an alternative reading of the images. The information about the lives of the monarchs provided in wall captions reaffirmed this focus on the individual: these texts indicated that many monarchs had completed advanced studies and had careers in Nigeria and abroad prior to assuming their kingly positions. This challenged the reductive gaze of traditional ethnography, which places its subjects frozen in a “timeless” and unchanging culture, and engaged the viewer in a conversation between distant and more recent pasts, and their intersection in the present.
Echoing the tension between tradition and modernity within the photographs, the exhibition navigated a delicate balance between presenting Osodi as a contemporary artist while also delving into the historical by displaying ceremonial robes and beaded regalia. These objects were presented as works of art with singular artistic merit; however, once their symbolic meaning was revealed in the wall captions, they became an entryway into the kingdoms' ancient customs and cultural beliefs. The temptation of seeing the photographs as worlds of make-believe was thereby dispelled.
All together it was a formal affair and a very colorful one; each photograph an immersion into a bright environment that revealed the way in which architectural spaces and regalia inscribed the position and power of the monarch. More than a collection of portraits, this exhibition, by emphasizing context, gave a rare and intimate glimpse of the royal palaces. To students of African culture, the photographs were an invaluable source of information about the material culture of these monarchies and histories of global trading. The many photographic portraits of previous monarchs that adorned the walls of the palaces, and the photographs of past jubilees embedded in the ceremonial robes, reveal the layered role of photography in anchoring the historical legitimacy of the monarchies. One could easily imagine Osodi's portraits hanging on these palaces' walls!
The Newark museum is located in a community with a large population of African American who are ethnically and religiously diverse. This exhibition, which aimed to capture the wide breadth of Osodi's photographic project, provided an unique opportunity for those of “Nigerian” descent to not only delve into their cultural heritage but also to be witness to the diversity and richness of its contemporary manifestations. More broadly, it dispelled the common idea of a monolithic Nigeria, shed light on the multiplicity of the rulers and ethnicities that continue to shape it to this day.