More exposure A visual history of Benin City returns home

Chief S.O. Alonge’s photographs have been returned in a commendable example of continent-spanning cultural diplomacy

R.S.

Chief S.O. Alonge’s photographs have been returned in a commendable example of continent-spanning cultural diplomacy

LAST month an extraordinary collection of photographs returned to Nigeria. Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge took pictures of the people of Benin City for over half a century, amassing an archive of more than 3,000 images. Spanning British rule and the early decades of independence, it is a visual record of style and self-expression, of everyday humanity in a country in flux.

As the first official photographer of the court of Benin, Alonge documented palace life and pageantry from 1933 to 1979. In a photograph from 1938, Oba Akenzua II, the monarch, stands between the Earl of Plymouth and Nigeria’s governor-general, looking into the distance. His richly-layered robes and coral beads contrast with the stiff white uniforms of the British, his perturbed but determined stare with their disdainful gazes. A hand-coloured image from 1956 shows the Oba bowing slightly as he shakes the white-gloved hand of Queen Elizabeth II, four years before the declaration of Nigeria’s independence. Again it is a photo of contrasts, his rust-tinted regalia set against the other monarch’s neat, powder-blue dress. Both outfits convey the solemnity of royalty.

These photographs are indicative of the uneasy relationship between the British and the Benin monarchy. Benin City (now the capital of Edo state in Nigeria, not Benin, the small country to Nigeria’s west) remained independent until the end of the 19th century. But its levying of customs duties irked the British, who in 1897 dispatched officers to see the Oba. The party was ambushed and killed, triggering a punitive expedition in which Benin was razed and thousands of its artefacts stolen (most are scattered across America and Europe, with the biggest collection in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, followed by the British Museum). The Oba was exiled, dying in 1914. That year his son was allowed to restore the monarchy to the city, and the British stitched southern and northern Nigeria together, an accommodation that remains uneasy today.

But Alonge also documented everyday, middle-class life. In 1942 he set up the Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City’s first commercial studio. He captured men in natty suits, teenage sisters in their mother’s wrappers and head ties and young women sporting beehives and minidresses. Stella Gbinigie, who was 16 when she and her sisters were photographed in 1950, remembered how he put them all at ease, treating them like his own children. Outside his studio, Alonge photographed everything from weddings to sports teams and groups of schoolchildren.

The Kodak glass-plate negatives and large-format film survived southern Nigeria’s heat and humidity thanks to Alonge’s meticulous storage, which he also extended to other early photographers of Benin. Upon his death in 1994, the archive was entrusted to Flora Kaplan, an American anthropologist with whom he had formed a deep friendship. It took her until 2009 to find a home with the necessary preservation expertise: the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.

This home was not to be permanent, though. “Our first thought was that we have to bring this back to Benin, so that they know about their own visual history. Many of the photographs are very personal family photos,” Amy Staples, the Smithsonian’s chief archivist, told This Day, a Nigerian newspaper. From 2014 to 2016 the images were exhibited in America, with the approval of Oba Erediauwa, Benin’s monarch at the time. In 2015 the museum signed a memorandum of understanding with Nigeria’s National Commission of Museum and Monuments, stating that the entire exhibition, including the display infrastructure, would be permanently moved to Benin City.

Although the photographs’ return holds lessons about cultural collaboration and the sharing of expertise, one could be forgiven for expressing reservations. If museums are to share heritage with as many people as possible, then Nigeria’s institutions currently fall somewhat short. Their dust-filled rooms are largely empty of visitors; the National Museum lacks a proper website. Tourism barely exists in a country with torrid infrastructure and expensive visas (although the latter have recently been made easier to obtain).

Preservation is another concern. The remains of Benin City’s medieval moats and walls, which once demarcated the kingdom in precise fractal patterns, are largely derelict. Part of the reason is the lack of connection many Nigerians feel towards their history, which is barely taught in schools. The country often feels in a hurry to move away from the difficulties of the past. Perhaps more importantly, the government rarely enforces laws protecting the country’s heritage. Built history is often swallowed up by Nigeria’s chaotic urbanisation. In the centre of Lagos, 19th-century mansions built by former slaves who returned from Brazil have been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers, by families looking to make money from what is often their only asset.

But as the collaboration between the Smithsonian and Benin City shows, the expertise afforded by wealthy institutions can help. Alonge’s glass-plate negatives have stayed, by agreement, in America for their own protection. It is the lack of money, as much as anything, that destroys Nigerian heritage and prevents what is left from being fully appreciated. With more resources from abroad, the preservation and promotion of artefacts and historical sites can be improved. A small number of visitors is still a base from which to grow.

The Alonge exhibition is a good place to start. Hundreds of Nigerian-Americans attended the original opening in 2014, finding photos of relatives and friends and sending messages back to Nigeria. The photographs’ return was greeted enthusiastically by the Nigerian press and local artists. Ms Staples, the Smithsonian curator, has said that she and her team will continue working with their Nigerian counterparts to collect the stories behind the images. As an example of collaboration, of resource-sharing and of cultural exchange, this is a model that can be followed the world over.

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