Solomon Osagie Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria, ca.1950’s

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Gaius Ikuobase Obaseki, government member of the Benin Kingdom, Benin City, Nigeria, ca. 1950's (Photo: Solomon Osagie Alonge)

Gaius Ikuobase Obaseki, government member of the Benin Kingdom, Benin City, Nigeria, ca. 1950’s (Photo: S.O. Alonge)

Seated man with hat, Benin City, Nigeria, ca. 1950's (Photo: Solomon Osagie Alonge)

Seated man with hat, Benin City, Nigeria, ca. 1950’s (Photo: S.O. Alonge)

The kingdom of Benin, home of the Edo-speaking peoples, is located in the tropical rain forest region of what is now Nigeria. An oba, or king, and his court have, from around 1300 C.E., governed the kingdom from Benin City, the capital. Within the kingdom, specialized artists belonged to guilds with hereditary membership and worked solely for the oba.
Oba Akenzua II (reign 1933–78) understood the significance of photography in documenting and preserving the 20th-century history and traditions of the Benin kingdom. During his reign, he reinstituted many social, political, and traditional practices prohibited by the British after the destruction of the royal palace and the exile of Oba Ovonramwen, during the punitive Expedition of 1897. When Akenzua II, took over in 1933, Solomon Osagie Alonge became his court photographer.
“Chief” Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994) was a self-taught photographer and pioneer of Nigerian photography. He was the first official photographer for the royal court of Benin City, Nigeria, and a chief in the Iwebo palace society. Alonge’s record of Nigerian royalty and social class is one of the most extensive and well-preserved collections from the period.
Alonge learned English at the Benin Baptist Elementary School and at the age of 14 moved to Lagos where he developed an interest in photography and took on an apprenticeship. In 1930, Alonge returned to Benin and began practicing photography from his home. In 1933, he became the photographer of the royal court.
Alonge’s work spans half a century and record the reigns of Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978) and Oba Erediauwa (1979-present). Alonge photographed the political and social events surrounding the royal palace, including the royal wives and children, visiting dignitaries and politicians, and annual festivals and court ceremonies. In the late 1930s, he became a founding member of the Benin Social Circle, a group of businessmen, leaders, and the educated elite.
In 1942, he created the Ideal Photo Studio in Benin City. Alonge’s studio portraits of Benin residents provide rare insight into the early history and practice of studio photography in Nigeria. In the 1930s and 1940s, many Nigerians patronized photography studios for the first time, presenting themselves and their families to the camera in ways they wished to be photographed. At that time, it cost two to three shillings for a professional portrait, an amount that was unaffordable to many. Those who could afford it dressed up in the latest fashions or in distinctive traditional textiles to get their portrait taken. Some individuals expressed themselves with their own cosmopolitan style of dress and hairstyles, while others dressed alike for special occasions such as funerals or to express their solidarity with extended family, social, and political groups.
Alonge’s photography preserves an important historical record of Benin arts and culture during the periods of British colonial rule and the transition to Nigerian independence during the 1950s and 1960s. Over 3,000 of Alonge’s photographs have been archived at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. His work is exhibited in the Museum until January 2016.
Sources / More to Read:
Wikipedia: Solomon Osagie Alonge
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art: Solomon Osagie Alonge
Wikipedia: Benin Empire
Wikipedia: Benin Expedition of 1897
The Obaseki Family of Benin, Edo State of Nigiria

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One thought on “Solomon Osagie Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria, ca.1950’s

  1. Pingback: Portrait of a Woman, Senegal, ca. 1910 | Colorem

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