Self-portrait with painted studio backdrop
Photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, c. 1942
There is a new exhibit at the National Museum of African Art that is part history lesson, part photography lesson and all really cool. Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria documents the works of Solomon Osagie Alonge, one of Nigeria’s best photographers and the official photographer of the royal court of Benin. For me, this exhibit taught me as much about Benin as it did the photographer and I enjoyed every minute of it. Throughout this exhibit are photos, cultural artifacts, a video and some history lessons covering everything from daily life through royal coronation ceremonies.
The first thing that caught my eye when I entered the exhibit was a timeline of the history of Benin including Nigeria’s art history. While it told the history of the people and culture on the top part of the timeline, the bottom part showed artistic progression of the early 20th century. It was fascinating to see different types and styles of art and how culture shaped the changes in the art over the years. Just that little timeline allowed me to appreciate more of the exhibit and understand some of Alonge’s influences, themes and props he used in his photography.
I have previously sat in on various photography classes and written blog posts about those experiences, and while I am no expert, I was able to identify things in Alonge’s photos that I had heard about in class. For any level photographer this exhibit is a great teaching tool, especially since Alonge worked years before any of the fancy equipment we have now was even imagined. He started out as a photographer before his country even had electricity! His studio portraiture is amazing. He used so many different props and put his subjects in different positions depending on the style of photograph the sitter was looking for. There are pictures of both traditional and modern dress that show a changing country that I found very interesting. Especially unique was Alonge’s use of a free standing railing that he incorporated into his portraits. Also on display were some of his old film, the boxes they came in, and old dry glass plates he used to print his photos. It’s a history lesson within a history lesson!
Alonge explored various themes, subjects and styles in his work. He photographed people, he created ads, and he took pictures of places, businesses, conferences, sporting events and even the annual party for Guinness. Not only was he a photographer but he was also quite the artist. There are many hand colored photographs of his that are absolutely beautiful. My favorite would either have to be Oba Akenzua II meeting Queen Elizabeth or a beautiful girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes and jewelry laying on a couch. His focus on the intricate details of hand coloring his subject’s photographs are phenomenal. Whether you want to improve your own photography skills or just see an informative exhibit I would greatly recommend checking this out.