Culture

Check Out These Moving Photos from Benin's Royal Court Photographer

The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art's first travel show to the continent brings Chief S.O. Alonge's photos back to Benin City.

This past weekend, the National Museum in Benin City, Nigeria, welcomed the photographs by Chief S.O. Alonge, the photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, home.


For the first time in its history, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art traveled this exhibition to the continent. In partnership with the National Museum of Benin, “Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria" will remain on permanent display. The exhibition section panels, banners and prints of Alonge's photography are now a permanent gift from the Smithsonian to the National Museum of Benin, in conjunction with royal arts from the Benin kingdom, according to the Smithsonian in a press release.

This exhibition represents a unique collection of archival photos that document the Benin-Edo peoples' tradition, culture and social history.

“Through his portrait photography in the Ideal Photo Studio, Alonge provided local residents—many for the first time—with the opportunity to represent themselves to themselves as dignified African subjects," Amy Staples, senior archivist at the National Museum of African Art, says. “His portraits of an emerging elite society in Benin City not only illustrate the cosmopolitan and modernizing influences of the 20th-century in Nigeria, they preserve the social history of Benin and its traditional leaders for future research and educational programs at the National Museum of Benin City."

The collection, captured on Kodak glass-plate negatives, gives us an inside look at the Benin royal family and their court ceremonies over a timespan of 50 years. It also preserves the history of Benin arts and culture during the periods of British colonial rule and the transition to Nigerian independence during the 1950s and 1960s. Alonge is one of the many Nigerian photographers who played an important role of documenting their own history while addressing identity, nationhood and memory.

Take a look at a selection of photos from the exhibition below.

Two men seated with crossed legs [I. Jesurove on left]. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Two women dressed alike. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Young man and woman, seated with hand poses. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Chief Gaius Obaseki portrait [Mr. Idehen, saw miller]. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Youth with jeans and cap; suede lace-up shoes; rug they used in client photos. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Portrait of man in Agbada. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Head shot (bust) portrait - young woman [Mrs. Agbontaen, as girl]. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Young woman; crossed legs (modern). Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Woman wearing traditional cloth and head wrapper. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Three young women seated on rail. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Two women dressed alike. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Two young girls dressed alike. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Four sisters dressed alike, seated on a couch. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Young man leaning on rail, with striped shirt. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Young woman leaning on rail, with striped shirt. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Man seated in suit with striped socks. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Benin woman from the royal court, with traditional hairstyle and coral beads. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Young woman leaning on chair with floral dress. Photograph by Chief S.O. Alonge, c. 1942 - 1966. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria.

Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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