In Historic First, Benin Photographs Return Home

By Solomon Elusoji    


A collection of images taken by the first official photographer of the royal court of Benin, Solomon Alonge, have found their way back to the ancient city from Washington D.C., after they were put on exhibition at the National Museum, Benin City, on Friday.

The photographs span half a century and capture vital moments across the reigns of two Benin kings – Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978) and Oba Erediauwa (1979-2016). They also include vivid representations of ordinary Benin citizens, who visited Alonge’s Ideal Studio to have their self-portraits taken.

The voyage back to Nigeria was made possible by the collaboration between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, which had acquired the collection in 2009 from the Alonge family for a “substantial” amount of money, a senior archivist at the Washington-based museum, Dr. Amy Staples, told THISDAY.

This collaboration marks the first time the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art will travel with an exhibition to the African continent.

The Alonge collection had previously been on display at the Washington Museum between September 17, 2014, and July 31, 2016.

“Through this portrait photography in the Ideal Photo Studio, Alonge provided local residents – many for the first time – with the opportunity to represent themselves as dignified African subjects,” Staples, who also doubled as the collection’s co-curator, said.

“His portraits of an emerging elite society in Benin City not only illustrate the cosmopolitan and modernising influences of the 20th century in Nigeria, they preserve the social history of Benin and its traditional leaders for future research and educational programmes at the National Museum of Benin City,” Staples explained.

Alonge’s collection of historic photographs, which was captured on Kodak glass-plate negatives, documents more than 50 years of the ritual, pageantry and regalia of the Obas, their wives and retainers, a press statement from the Smithsonian noted, adding: “Alonge’s photographs reveal a unique insider’s view of the Benin royal family and court ceremonies, including historic visits by Queen Elizabeth (in 1956), foreign dignitaries, traditional rulers, political leaders and celebrities.”

“We’ve had a series of collaborations with museums across the world, but what makes this different and significant is not just because we received training support and funds to refurbish the museum, but that it comes with a gift of materials that had been taken out of Nigeria,” the Director-General of NCMM, Yusuf Usman, said.

However, the Kodak glass-plate negatives, from which the photographs being exhibited at the Benin Museum were printed, still remain in the United States as properties of the Smithsonian.

Usman suggested this was not important. “The original still remains in the United States, but at least we have the replicas and we are going to use them to tell the story, of not just the royal court of Benin, but also of Benin in the 20th century.

“This helps us to plan and understand where we have been as a country, where we are and where we are going,” he said.

Staples also stressed that “if the Alonge collection had stayed here (Benin), it would have been completely deteriorated at this point. And nobody would have been able to share in that story. So we (Smithsonian) try to play that role: preservationists for the world”.

One of Nigeria’s most important contemporary artists, Victor Ehikhamenor, told THISDAY the “return” was a welcome development. “It’s beyond words,” he said. “We have to start from somewhere. And a situation where archives are maintained so that history can be retained and the future generations will know what has happened is always welcome. We need more of these things. But this is a good starting point.”

Conversely, he noted that Nigerian governments do not pay attention to preserving “our history”.

“We don’t have to always wait for outsiders to poke us to do the right thing,” he admonished.

The collaboration between NCMM and the Smithsonian Museum resulted in the renovation of the Benin Museum, which had not undergone any major facelift since it was first built during the military administration of Samuel Ogbemudia in the late 1960s.

The renovation was hugely supported by the Benin Committee, a group of distinguished professionals that includes the current governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki.

Obaseki became involved in Alonge’s photography sometime in 2009 after discovering that his mother, Stella Gbinigie, had visited the famous photographer as a 16-year old to have her portrait taken.

A renowned scholar and professor of Energy Law, Yinka Omorogbe, heads the Benin Committee.

Other major partners that made the historic collaboration between NCMM and the Smithsonian Museum possible include the United States Consulate in Nigeria and Heritage Bank.

After acquiring the collection in 2009, Staples travelled to Benin in 2012 to engage with the Benin community and inform appropriate stakeholders on the Smithsonian’s intention to hold an exhibition of Alonge’s photography in Washington.

“Our first thought was that we have to bring this back to Benin so that they know about their own visual history,” Staples told THISDAY.

“Many of the photographs are very personal family photos. So at the Smithsonian, we do not just take collections and keep them under wraps; we seek out the communities from where the objects come and we go back to engage them with the exhibits.

“Many people didn’t know the photographs existed; they didn’t know what their grandparents looked like. So it’s really important to them personally to have some of these photos. That’s kind of how we operate: we engage with communities,” Staples pointed out.

In July 2015, the Director General of NCMM and the Director Emerita of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

The MoU required the Smithsonian to gift every aspect of the exhibit fabrications from its Washington exhibition of Alonge’s photography – the banners, the framed photographs, the labels, the panels – to the Benin Museum.

In 2016, four staff from the Benin Museum were sent to Washington for three weeks training. The trip was funded by the Ford Foundation Fellowship.

This July, the Smithsonian flew in an exhibit expert to train every staff of the Benin Museum on how to handle the exhibits and mount them.

“After a week, we left and by the time we returned, we found out that they had all become pros,” Staples said.

The landmark collaboration also gave birth to the publication of a book: Fragile Legacies, which minutely explored Alonge’s lifelong romance with photography at a time when the art form was still regarded as a luxury.

The book entertained interesting contributions from prominent Nigerian artists such as Tam Fiofori and George Osodi.

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