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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.

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Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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