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02 Jun 2013

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Johnnetta Betsch Cole

A team from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art was recently in Nigeria to create awareness for a proposed exhibition of the works of a now deceased Benin Royal Court photographer. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Eddie Burke, it turned out, was the real surprise. The art journalist, who shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with him in The Wheatbaker Hotel lobby, had imagined him differently. A Caucasian sporting a dark pin-stripe suit could have been more like it. But here he was: a very light-skinned Blackman in shirtsleeves.

Of course, his interlocutor already knew his official designation: the Public Affairs Specialist of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA). This was long before he offered him his business card. He had spoken a few times and exchanged several emails with Burke since the Smithsonian team’s arrival in Nigeria.

Burke’s director, Dr Johnnetta Betsch Cole, who the journalist had come here to see, was at the hotel’s breakfast room. Would the journalist and the photographer tagging along care to join her for coffee? Both thought it would be nice and accepted the offer. 
Dr. Cole was another surprise. She is a gracefully tall café au lait-complexioned African-American lady, who looked very much at home in her African-themed indigo print gown complete with a head scarf made from the same material and a thin bead necklace.  She is the first non-art historian director of the NMAfA, having studied anthropology for her doctorate degree at the North-western University. This makes her “an unusual director of the museum”. But then she easily makes up for this with the fact that she has a passion for both African and African-American art.

Obviously, her lustrous antecedents have positioned her for her current duty. Hers is a mind-numbingly impressive curriculum vitae, which takes the reader through a dense thicket of degrees and honours. She made history in 1987 as the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College. A brief write-up on her adds: “At her inauguration, Drs Bill and Camille Cosby donated 20 million dollars to the college; and during her presidency, Spelman was named the number one liberal arts college of the South. During her presidency at Benneth College for Women, an art gallery was opened and programs [sic] were initiated in women’s studies and global studies.”

Just last year, an Igbo chieftaincy title, “Adaoha” (The Daughter of All) was conferred on her in the Abia State town of Uturu by the Uturu monarch. She had served in several boards, one of which was the board of Coca-Cola Enterprise, where she served as the first woman. She currently chairs the board of the National Visionary Leadership Project and also sits on the board of KaBOOM, among several others.

At the breakfast table, passion dripped from virtually every one of her words as she enthused about the mission of the team – which also included the senior archivist Amy Staples – to Nigeria.

The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art is planning a major exhibition in Washington DC, USA. Featuring the works of the late Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge, it is billed to hold next year to coincide with Nigeria’s centenary anniversary celebrations. Chief Alonge was a photographer of the Benin Royal Court. Born in 1911, he passed on in 1994. He had, for over six decades – precisely, from 1926 to 1989 – documented the Benin Royal Court.

The proposed duration of the exhibition is from September next year to September 2015. Its curators have also been named as Bryna Freyer and Amy Staples. Flora Kaplan is the consulting curator. This exhibition, it is hoped, would have a Nigerian leg.
“But why Alonge?” the journalist wondered aloud.

The party had, by now, relocated to the hotel’s poolside for a photo shoot.
“He was among the first indigenous photographers both in Nigeria and West Africa,” Dr Cole replied. “And because his works are both professional and artistic. He’s appropriately composive.”

A quick check on Chief Alonge: his “photographic collection spans six decades (1926 – 1989) and represents a dynamic continuous record of the Benin Royal Court, Nigeria,” according to the information gleaned from the press pack. “Benin City and the Oba’s (king) Palace have been major political, religious and administrative centres for over eight hundred years. As the royal photographer to the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II (1933 -1978), Alonge documented the ritual, pageantry and regalia, their wives and retainers for over half-century, including the coronation of the King and the Queen Mother, Iyoba.”

He was also reported to have documented historic visits to the Benin Kingdom by the Earl of Plymouth in 1935, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1956 as well as Princess Alexandra in 1960, among a host of others. “He had 60 years of documenting what was going on in the royal palace of Benin,” Dr Cole was saying. “This is both photography and history.”
But why, of all Nigerian photographers, would they choose Chief Alonge?

The museum’s in-house scholars stumbled upon his name. Apparently, Chief Alonge’s name kept coming up. “If you’re a scholar of African art, then you would know Alonge.”

Dr Cole also explained that the decision to first hold the exhibition at the NMAfA was for “practical reasons”.  “It is easier to open it in our galleries. I believe that when we do this, it’s going to be a good exhibition. Passion alone would not an exhibition make.”
She also hopes to make further visits to Nigeria before the exhibition’s proposed opening date in Washington DC.

The Dr Cole-led Smithsonian delegation was first in Abuja, where it addressed a press conference announcing the exhibition at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel on Thursday, May 23.  It later held a VIP on Sunday, May 26, which was graced by a coterie of Nigerian dignitaries.

The dinner, co-chaired by HRH Crown Prince Edaiken of the Benin Kingdom, also had the Minister of Culture and Tourism, High Chief Edem Duke, Nduka Obaigbena, the chairman/editor-in chief of THISDAY and ARISE Magazine, Chief Dr. Gregory Ibe, Chancellor of Gregory University and Chief Mrs. Elizabeth Jibunoh, co-founder of the Didi Museum.

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