The Man Who Froze Benin Kingdom

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Using photography, Solomon Alonge recorded one of the most dynamic periods in human history, writes Solomon Elusoji

In 1984, a Professor of Anthropology at New York University, Flora Kaplan, arrived Benin City. A Fulbright scholar, she taught Anthropology at the University of Benin for a couple of years. Once, she was at the Oba’s Palace on one of her numerous fieldworks and instinctually took the photograph of a chief donning a billowing white wrapper. “Why I took the photograph, I cannot say,” Kaplan said. “I simply liked his face.”

A few weeks after the fortuitous shot, Kaplan was scheduled to meet with Queen Ohan Akenzua, the royal wife of the prior Benin king, Oba Akenzua II. Kaplan had first encountered Queen Ohan in 1980 when she chose her image from among a half dozen contact prints of Oba Akenzua’s queens, photographed by Ian Brinkworth in the 1950s, and featured her in the 1981 exhibition and catalogue Images of Power: Art of the Royal Court of Benin at NYU.

On the morning of her visit to the royal abode, the Queen announced that she wanted Kaplan to see more photographs of her late husband, Oba Akenzua II, and her children. To get to these photos, they had to visit the most prestigious photo studio in town – Ideal Photo Studio – where Kaplan would meet, for the second time, the chief whom she had photographed – Solomon Alonge.

Alonge, who had founded the Ideal Photo Studio in the 1940s, was the first professional Benin photographer and the man chosen as court photographer by Oba Akenzua II in 1933. As he brought out his prints to show Queen Ohan and Kaplan when they visited, it quickly became evident to the NYU professor that Alonge’s work had documented more than 50 years of rapid change under British rule and the slow revival of Benin court traditions, after the monarchy was demolished in the British expedition of 1897. “I was impressed by the efficiency of the system Alonge devised for his early glass plates and negatives, the efficacy of his storage cabinets, and the care he took of his cameras without air conditioning,” Kaplan said.

The second meet led to an interview with Alonge, where Kaplan realised they both shared a mutual passion for photography. From there, a lifelong friendship blossomed. By the time Alonge died on October 30, 1994, he had entrusted most of his works to Kaplan, hoping that she would, one day, help find a permanent home for them.

Why Alonge matters

The products of Solomon Alonge’s photography are a tribute to history, a pantheon collection that recast the image of an entire kingdom.

In 1897, when the British Empire waged war against the Benin Kingdom, they looted the ancient city of its precious and priceless artworks which included almost a thousand bronze plaques. The British then staged a mock trial to humiliate the centuries-old Benin monarchy, condemning Oba Ovonramwen for instigating the violence before banishing him from the land of his ancestors. While on the British steam yacht Ivy, the imperialists arranged a photo shoot for the Oba and specifically chose an image of a dejected Oba Ovonramwen in captivity for its propaganda against the kingdom, which was to cast it as a blood-sucking, human-sacrificing, banal race.

“Two powerful images – a burnt-out Oba’s palace with the war booty of Benin artworks and a defeated Oba Ovonramwen in captivity – reinforced by the damning report Benin: The City of Blood written by R.H. Bacon, the intelligence officer to the expedition, contributed immensely toward defining and entrenching the outside’s world’s perception of the Benin kingdom, its monarchy, and peoples as evil and barbaric,” Nigerian documentary photographer, Tam Fiofori said. “Thus, a new phase in the world image of the Benin monarchy and its peoples began; in a word, it was simply demonic.”

Interestingly, the Benin’s version of history is expressed through its tradition of bronze casting, which the British pilfered. The imperialists must have known this, because they were quite enthusiastic in distributing those bronze castings across Europe, selling them on the international art scene while keeping some for themselves, breaking into fragments a people’s cohesive narrative, while perpetuating identity distortion.

“Benin bronzes are not meant to be kept in museums and used as decorative pieces,” Oba Erediauwa told a BBC TV crew in 2009. “Rather, bronzes fill in for the absence of photography in Benin traditional society and the Oba’s court; as bronze castings are specifically used to depict and document important events and activities of a reigning Oba of Benin.”

Oba Erediauwa’s acknowledgement of photography as a metaphor for bronze casting is striking. In the absence of the latter, it meant that those who practised the former had inadvertently taken up the sacred role of historians and storytellers, bestowed with the power to shape general consciousness. And this was exactly what Alonge did for more than 50 years, rewriting the Benin story one shot at a time, throwing light on dark crevices and exposing the blatant incredulity of British propaganda.

Perhaps Fiofori puts it better when he noted that Alonge’s “claim to fame and permanent place of honour in the history of the acclaimed Benin Kingdom is his unquantifiable, yet very visible, role in redeeming the image of the Benin monarchy and the Benin-Edo peoples. It may not have been a premeditated or deliberate strategy. Nonetheless, as S.O. Alonge built a body of work – as the official court photographer to the Benin monarchy from 1933 to 1979 and as the proprietor of the Ideal Photo Studio – he created images that collectively changed, for the better, long-held perceived mind-sets and negative images of the Benin kingdom.”

It is hard to say whether Alonge understood his place in history, but the evidence suggests he did, as he went out of his way to create a coherent picture of the Benin narrative. Flora Kaplan noted that Alonge preserved and extended early Benin history by acquiring negatives and prints from earlier photographers. “The earliest photographer in the city, he told me, was a Yoruba man who returned from Sierra Leone around 1922,” she said. “Koka was an itinerant photographer who travelled around to other ethnic groups living in towns like Sapele, Warri, Akure, Onitsha and Benin City, taking school photographs and special events. Few of his photographs have survived. In 1942, Koka transferred to Alonge a print and negative of Oba Eweka II in his full coral bead regalia, which Alonge hand-tinted.”

How the man was made

Alonge was born into the Oloke family in 1911. The Oloke family traces its ancestry to an important Benin chief, Ogbomo Norio Okaro, who was the Okavbiogbe in charge of land matters for Oba Osemwede in the early 17th Century. Alonge’s father, Idahosa, had been a palace chief during the reign of Oba Ovonramwen, who was still a British captive when Alonge drew his first oxygen. In 1911, the British were well in control of Benin City and its surroundings..

In 1925, at the age of 14, Alonge walked with his father to his uncle’s house in Lagos. Alonge’s uncle was Samuel Izedomen Omere, one of the earliest British colonial employees educated in English, and a Christian who rose to be the chief clerk of prisons in Lagos. His father left the young Alonge with Omere, perhaps to allow him have a better chance of succeeding in the world. He was to complete his education to the sixth grade – the highest level then available for Africans in Nigeria – at the Baptist Church Academy. “Fostering children within an extended family was an opportunity for a promising child to live with a family and benefit from those relatives who held desirable positions,” Kaplan, who has written extensively on the extreme importance of Alonge’s photography to the enrichment of the human experience, said. “They were clothed, fed, and educated to acquire good manners and skills and to learn new things.”

Alonge excelled under this ‘foster-care’ arrangement. One of Uncle Omere’s wives told Kaplan of how “gentle, quiet and truthful” the young Alonge was, noting that he was “the best” among all the boys that boarded with them. “He is more than serious and doesn’t play with work,” the wife, whom Kaplan interviewed decades after, said.

The Uncle Omere family attended St. Peter’s Anglican Church on Ajele Street and Kaplan noted that Alonge was seen as a leader among the other boys. “Each night before retiring, he read a psalm aloud to them, holding their interest and enriching their sense of duty in a wider world.”

This sense of religious order and purpose seemed to have helped Alonge overcome – in the same way Calvinism helped the British build the right value system that made the industrial revolution possible – the arduous technical challenges of photography in the early 20th Century, despite having little tools to work with. For example, there was no electricity in Benin until 1945, and Alonge had to rely on gaslight paper and a hurricane lantern wrapped with red paper to make a darkroom. He printed with sunlight and once remarked to Kaplan: “I put it out in the sun, wait two to three minutes, then look at paper to see if the image is enough.”

Between 1927 and 1928, Uncle Omere gave Alonge a Kodak Box Brownie camera. “It was a generous gift, then costing two to three pounds,” Kaplan said. “Omere and his friends had often asked Alonge to help them with their cameras, and now the young man had a camera of his own.”

He quickly swung into action, taking pictures with his new equipment in Lagos into the end of the 1920s. In 1930, Uncle Omere was transferred to a higher post in Ghana and Alonge chose to return to Benin City where he continued with his photography. At first he rented a bicycle to travel to government schools in Ishan, Uromi, Irrua, Ikpoma and Ewu to take end-of-year student photograph; then, in 1930, he moved into 8, Ugbague Street, his family house, and set up a room to begin his professional life in photography.

In 1940, Alonge began to retouch and tint photographs. “His customers were enthusiastic about colour,” Kaplan noted, “they ‘wanted to show their dresses’”. If clients wanted large photographs, he had to have them enlarged abroad. In the mid-1930s, Kaplan said, he figured out how to enlarge images by cutting a hole in the window, putting the camera outside the windowpane on a bracket, and facing the lens into the room.

In 1933, Alonge was chosen as the official court photographer by Oba Akenzua II and went on to capture the burgeoning palace festivals, distinguished visitors (including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1956, Princess Alexandra in 1960, Nnamdi Azikwe in 1938 and many others) and events such as the coronations of Oba Akenzua II and Oba Erediauwa, who later made Alonge a member of the Iwebo Society, the oldest of the three palace societies, and also bestowed on Alonge the honour of a white cloth for his burial.

Alonge’s commercial portraits, however, have as much historical value as his royal shots. They showed a Benin society that was caught in the middle of sweeping changes and a cultural potpourri that had not mixed properly. His clients came to his Ideal Photo Studio with a sense of purpose, the same way Sizwe Bansi went to Styles: to capture a momentous chapter. “People often included a treasured possession, such as a car, a motorcycle, or a prize,” Kaplan said. “They wanted an image to mark an occasion – going abroad or returning from a trip, departing for school or university, or celebrating an award, special promotion, insignia, or uniform.”

Coming home, again

On a sunny day last month, the National Museum of Benin was invaded by strobe lights and microphones, smart suits and flowing agbadas, and a coterie of speechmakers. The occasion was the return of Alonge’s photographs from the annals of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC.

In a country where art museums are mostly covered in cobwebs, dust and grime, it is not difficult to imagine how Alonge’s photographs ended up in Washington DC. After his death in 1994, Professor Kaplan, working hand in hand with the Alonge family, started to shop for a permanent home for the photographs, fragile documents that needed expert care. But that goal was not achieved until 2009, when the Smithsonian Museum decided to acquire the collection. Curiously, the Museum had earlier rejected the work in the 1990s. It was the boundless enthusiasm of the museum’s senior archivist, Dr. Amy Staples, who saw incredible value in the collection, that changed the museum’s opinion.

“Alonge was not only documenting his own cultural heritage, he was inventing a visual language to record and preserve the history of the Benin Kingdom in the modern era,” Staples said. “This sets his work apart from colonial photographers who generally focused on staging exoticised images of Africans or ethnographic ‘types’ for popular consumption in Europe and America. As an archival collection, Alonge’s surviving images in their orginal formats – glass plate negatives, large format film and hand-coloured photographs – preserve a rare visual record of Benin royalty, art, and culture during a transitional period from British colonial rule to Nigerian independence in 1963.”

After the acquisition in 2009, Staples travelled to Benin City to meet Oba Erediauwa and look for some of those who appeared in Alonge’s photographs, and their descendants.

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

After receiving the blessings of Oba Erediauwa, the Smithsonian Museum held an exhibition of Alonge’s photography in Washington between September 17, 2014 and July 31, 2016. In July 2015, the Director General of Nigeria’s National Commission of Museum and Monuments (NCMM), Yusuf Usman and the then Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The MoU stated that the Smithsonian was to gift every 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.

However, the Kodak glass-plate negatives, from which the photographs being exhibited at the Benin Museum were printed, remain in the United States as properties of the Smithsonian. Usman suggested this was not important. “The original 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.”

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.”

She is right. In fact, that the collection survived is as a result of Alonge’s keen archival and documentarian sensibilities. “His glass plates negatives were well ordered in storage cabinets and out of the heat and humidity as much as possible,” Staples said.

One of Nigeria’s most important contemporary artists, Victor Ehikhamenor, said that 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.”

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

The fundamental lesson that rears its head from Alonge’s story is the timelessness of great art. The cameraman is dead, but his photographs continue to imbue life into those who stare at them; they continue to parrot the tales of dead men and a chequered history; they continue to show us the painstaking evolution of change.