For more than half a century, Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge, a self-taught photographer from Benin City, documented a country and society in flux. Starting in the 1930s as the official photographer for the Royal Court of Benin, the ancient kingdom of what is known today as southern Nigeria, he snapped photos of the royal wives, visiting dignitaries and celebrities, annual festivals, and court ceremonies.
As the owner of the first commercial photo studio in the city, he photographed birthdays, weddings, and graduations throughout the years before and after Nigerian independence in 1960. He also documented the industrial rise of Benin City, today the capital of Nigeria’s Edo state, photographing the building of new roads, churches, a Guinness brewery, and a Masonic Temple.
Now a rare collection of Alonge’s work, preserved and curated by the Smithsonian Institution, has been returned to Nigeria where it will be on permanent display at the National Museum of Benin City. The goal, according to organizers, is to share knowledge about the history of the former capital of the pre-colonial Benin empire and the lives of its residents.
“Many of these photographs captured special moments in the lives of Benin-Edo people, and are highly treasured family photographs of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, spouses, and children. In this way, he documented the social history of the lives of the Benin-Edo community,” says Amy Staples, senior archivist at the National Museum of African Art.
The idea for the collection was hatched in 2007 when Flora Kaplan of the Graduate School of Arts and Center, at New York University approached the National Museum of African Art about purchasing and exhibiting Alonge’s work.
For the next seven years, museum delegations traveled to Nigeria to interview Alonge’s relatives and associates, as well as patrons of his studio, the Ideal Photo Studio, opened in 1942. Researchers also visited Benin kingdom’s leader at the time, Oba Erediauwa, to receive his blessing for the exhibit, which eventually opened in Washington, DC in 2014.
In Benin City, Alonge’s photography marked several firsts. Many of the local residents who went to his studio had never had their picture taken before. Their portraits, a mix of traditional and modern, illustrate the influences shaping 20th century Nigeria at the time.
In one, a young woman named Stella Gbinigie, reclines on a couch, wearing a head tie, lace, and a skirt wrapper. The photo, taken in 1950, has been subtly hand colored. According to Staples, Gbinigie visited the Alonge exhibit in Washington more than 60 years later and remembered how she and her sisters had dressed up in their mother’s clothes and jewelry for the occasion. Alonge treated the sisters like they were his own children, Gbinigie recalled.
The exhibit is also about remembering, community, and social identity. More than 300 members of the Nigerian diaspora attended the exhibit’s opening in 2014 where they found photos of old relatives and friends among the collection. As they snapped pictures and video on their phones, sending messages to family back in Nigeria, the event felt less like an exhibit and more like a community space for “new modes of visual expression, social memory, and transnational citizenship,” Staples wrote in a book on Alonge published earlier this year, Fragile Legacies, the Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge.
The exhibition features another photo of particular importance to residents of Benin. In 1938 Alonge photographed the Benin Social Circle, the first local social club in Benin City. Its members would go on to become teachers, civil servants, businessmen, and local politicians. (Alonge is also in the picture, in the back row at the far left.) The club, which still exists today, celebrates its 80 year anniversary next year. Many of its current members can identify their parents and grandparents in Alonge’s photo.
With the help of the Benin City Museum, Staples and her team are still collecting the stories of those connected to Alonge. Local residents have been visiting the newly installed exhibit where they have identified their own portraits or those of family and friends. “The work continues and has gained momentum since the exhibition opening in Benin,” Staples says.