In the past thirty years, research and writings about the oeuvre and practice of professional African photographers have gained momentum. Today these luminaries, among them Jonathan Adagogo Green, Seydou Keita, and J.D. ‘Okhei Ojeikere, take their place in the global history of photography. Exhibitions devoted to the practice of African image makers have multiplied in recent years, reflecting the increased interest in their photographs, which also command attention of collectors and in the art market.
Enter Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994), who pursued parallel careers as official photographer at the royal court of the ancient Benin Kingdom in southeastern Nigeria and as owner of the Ideal Photo Studio in its capital, Benin City. His pictures, life well-lived, and legacies in the kingdom and abroad are the focus of this beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated book. It appeared in 2017 in conjunction with the second venue of the groundbreaking exhibition Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin at the National Museum of Benin in the kingdom's capital, after it was first shown in 2014 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, DC (Auslander 2016).
Both the exhibition and publication, organized under the lead of Amy J. Staples, senior archivist of NMAfA's Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (EEPA), are the culmination of a project which began over ten years ago, when Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan, an anthropologist who had conducted research in the kingdom and authored earlier essays referring to Chief Alonge, brought his archive to the attention of NMAfA (Kaplan 1990, 1991). Chief Alonge's meticulously maintained archive of more than 3,000 documentary images and over 450 glass plate negatives from his studio ultimately came from Benin City to the EEPA. As the project to share his unique legacy evolved, the National Museum of Benin and NMAfA began to cooperate. Soon the endeavor included the Alonge family, Nigerian colleagues and authorities, photographers, and patrons of Chief Alonge's studio in Benin City. The effort enjoyed the support of many in Nigeria, most importantly of the king of Benin, His Royal Majesty Oba Erediauwa, Omo N'Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolokpolo (r. 1979–2016), and Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
The book opens with prefaces by Staples and Theophilus Umogbai, curator of the National Museum of Benin. Both focus on the collaboration between the two museums and the overall goal of making Chief Alonge's archive accessible to Benin-Edo peoples in the kingdom, Benin-Edo communities elsewhere—including in the United States—and to viewers around the globe. In six chapters and five shorter essays, organized into three sections, the book features contributions by Nigerian and American authors who evoke the artistic, historical, and lasting significance of Chief Alonge's oeuvre, which spanned fifty years.
The first section, “Photography and Visual Culture in Benin,” focuses on the Benin kingdom's history, its exposure to photography, and the role of the new medium in Benin's visual culture practices. Its three chapters reference the kingdom's tragic fate during the establishment of British rule, which culminated in the so-called British Punitive Expedition and destruction and looting of the royal palace and Benin City in 1897. Soon thereafter Benin's king, Oba Ovonramwen, who had ruled since 1888, was deported into exile in Calabar. In “Imaging | Imagining History,” Staples previews the sections and chapters in the book and then provides an overview of the rise of African professional photographers active in what is now Nigeria. Precursors of Chief Alonge include Neils Walwin Holm, H. Sanya Freeman, and George S.A. da Costa, all of whom took up photography in the late nineteenth century (Gore 2013, Gbadegesin 2014). Staples also references Jonathan Adagogo Green, an Igbani-Ijo photographer based in Bonny, responsible for several iconic images of Oba Ovonramwen on his way into exile aboard the British steam yacht Ivy (Anderson and Aronson 2017).
“Remembering Solomon Osagie Alonge | Revisiting History,” a chapter by Kaplan, expands the account of the kingdom's defeat and occupation by the British and the reemergence and restoration of the monarchy in the twentieth century, initially still under colonial rule and then in the years after Nigerian independence. Most significantly, she also recalls her personal encounters with Chief Alonge and presents his detailed biography. We learn that he was born into a prominent Benin-Edo family and went to school in Benin City and later in Lagos, where he encountered other African photographers. By 1930, he established himself as a professional photographer in Benin City and embarked on a distinguished career. He became a civic leader in town and was appointed to the Iwebo Palace Society by Oba Erediauwa.
In “Redeeming the Image of the Benin Monarchy and People” Tam Fiofori, a renowned writer, filmmaker, and photojournalist, argues that Chief Alonge's documentation of events at the royal palace and in particular widely circulating portraits of Oba Akenzua II (r. 1933–1978) helped change the perception of Benin and its rulers among their subjects, in Great Britain, and worldwide. Fiofori, who grew up in Benin City and has been among the photographers capturing Oba Erediauwa, palace officials, and royal ceremonies, brings his own sensibilities of depicting the Benin monarchy to his essay (Fiofori 2011).
The interaction between Benin kings and image makers in the twentieth century is further illuminated by Lagos-based photojournalist George Osodi in his brief essay “Photographing the Oba of Benin.” In 2012, he portrayed Oba Erediauwa during a shoot for his Nigerian Monarchs project. How the protocol of photographic encounters unfolded and was controlled by court officials and the ruler himself echoes the earlier experiences of Chief Alonge. The account testifies to the awareness of African kings, among them the monarchs of the Bamum kingdom in Cameroon and the Kuba kingdom in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that photographs and self presentation through visual media could serve their internal and external political agendas.
The second section, “Benin Arts and Historical Memory,” sets photography into a cultural continuum of recording history through artworks commissioned by Benin kings for religious and record-keeping purposes. Daniel E. Inneh, a historian and archaeologist who held many official positions in Nigeria, authored chapter 4, “Art as a Medium of Recording: Precolonial Benin Revisited.” He discusses the developments of the court arts in different media, emphasizing the mnemonic functions of commemorative heads of kings and queen mothers and of ancient copper alloy plaques referred to as bronzes, which visualized major events in Benin history. It was a task that Chief Alonge's photographs fulfilled in the twentieth century, as several authors mention, among them Bryna M. Freyer, retired curator of collections at NMAfA. In her case study, “Visualizing History: Bronze Plaques and Photography,” she juxtaposes a mid-sixteenth- to seventeenth-century copper alloy plaque and a 1936 Chief Alonge photograph of the Earl of Plymouth visiting Oba Akenzua II, confirming the continuities in function and composition of both the ancient plaque and the modern photograph.
Kokure Agbontaen-Echafona, member of a distinguished Benin-Edo family who holds a PhD in archaeology (Cultural Resource Management/Museum Studies) from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, deepens our understanding of these continuities when she refers to Benin artworks as “pictorial writing” and “ancient photography” in her chapter “Photographic Recordkeeping in Benin: Ancient and Modern.” Like other contributors, she sees “modern” photography as continuity of cultural practices in the visual sphere. She also explores early European illustrations of Benin, which familiarized global audiences with the kingdom and helped shape its image abroad. In the second part of her chapter, Agbontaen-Echafona turns to Chief Alonge's photographs in the service of the inhabitants of Benin City and how his images have become cherished memorabilia in Benin-Edo families, including her own. A selection of portraits of the Agbontaen family—her father, Chief Morgan Agbontaen, who was a friend and patron of Chief Alonge; her mother, Mrs. Adeola Agbontaen; and the author herself—presents a perfect transition to the last section of the book.
The emphasis in this final section, titled “The Ideal Photo Studio,” shifts from the royal court to the inhabitants in town. The chapter “S.O. Alonge as Artist – Photographer – Social Documentarian” by Staples adds to the growing literature on the commercial practice of indigenous African image makers in the last years of colonial rule, at the dawn of independence, and during the postcolonial era into the early 1990s.1 Chief Alonge opened the Ideal Photo Studio in 1942 and filled all needs of his clientele, including outdoor and indoor portrait photography. In his portraits one encounters familiar pan-West African poses, which the photographer and his sitters authored in studio settings, at times in front of painted backdrops. Chief Alonge's patrons held props, sat on and leaned against a rail, chairs, and benches in his studio, or wanted to be portrayed with prestigious objects such as a Vespa or a Volkswagen Beetle around 1965. That these conventions had spread throughout West Africa comes as no surprise, given the mobility of photographers, the flow of image objects, and movements of his patrons, who may have worked in other parts of Nigeria and West Africa, or even been in Europe (Nimis 2005).
Chief Alonge's sitters could often be identified, and Staples interviewed several surviving patrons decades after they posed for portraits in his studio. Their recollections and sentiments about their photographs and how they fashioned themselves as modern for the photographic occasions are among the highlights throughout the book. Besides portraiture, Staples discusses other aspects of Chief Alonge's practice, such as large group pictures among photographs documenting events. Industrial and advertising images added to his repertoire, attesting to his mastery of conventions in all fields of photography. This exploration of the broader scope of his work is a welcome and necessary addition to the literature, especially since much of earlier writing on African photographies focused on portraiture. Staples's conversation with Esan photographer Eni Ehzibue Ehikhamonor, who currently operates the Enis Photo Studio in Benin City, concludes this section and brings indigenous photographic practice into the present.
An epilogue by Staples titled “Preserving a Fragile Legacy: Forging Ties with a Nigerian Community” concludes the book. Here she provides a more extensive account of the way in which the project unfolded over the years. A fine selected bibliography and useful illustrated Benin timeline accompany the volume.
Several themes reverberate through most contributions. There are frequent references to the royal court's practice of visualizing history through artworks, a tradition that Chief Alonge's photographs continued, for they now embody historical memory. The authors also remind us how early imagery created negative stereotypes of the kingdom and its inhabitants in Great Britain and elsewhere, highlighting photography's function as helpmate in the colonial project. And there is consensus that Chief Alonge's pictures taken in the later colonial and the postcolonial eras, some of which circulated widely, had social impact in the kingdom and helped change perceptions of Benin in Great Britain and beyond. Some readers may find these thematic recurrences repetitive. In my view, they are necessary reminders, for all authors needed to discuss their specific insights and observations within these larger frameworks.
In summary, the book offers a rich tapestry of essays and viewpoints illuminating Chief Alonge's legacy. For scholars of visual culture in Africa and, more generally, global photographic practices, the publication presents a major milestone and a timely addition to the literature. For readers interested in colonial and postcolonial history and changing cultural landscapes in African kingdoms and particularly in Benin, it adds to the understanding of social and political dynamics through the lens of photography. This monograph belongs on the shelves of university libraries and will add to the discussion of African photographic practices in classrooms. General readers and collectors will enjoy the encounter with the oeuvre of an African photographer, little known until now. And finally, the long collaboration preceding this publication presents a model for future endeavors, helping to preserve and make photographic archives of African practitioners accessible both in their places of origin and elsewhere. Perhaps a Benin-Edo aphorism best characterizes this entire effort: “Oziegbeoriuwa“: in translation, “Patience brings results in prosperity.” According to a recent communication by Theophilus Umogbai, the “patience and prosperity” saying can apply to body, mind, and soul. In this case, it brought us knowledge and the pleasure of viewing Chief Alonge's oeuvre.
Among the growing number of projects devoted to the preservation of archives maintained by predecessors and contemporaries of Chief Alonge is Jürg Schneider and Rosario Mazuela Coll's longterm endeavor about George Goethe (1896–1977), a Sierra Leonean/Cameroonian, who operated a studio in Douala; http://african-photography-initiatives.org/index.php/archives/studio-photo-george. See also their project “Cameroon Press Photo Archives, Buea. Protection, Conservation, Access,” http://african-photography-initiatives.org/index.php/archives/camerun.