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Tuesday 20 June 2017New book represents a major alternative visual history of Nigeria viewed through the lens of its premier photographer

Fragile Legacies Fragile Legacies The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge
Amy J. Staples, Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan and Bryna M. Freyer

Fragile Legacies showcases the extraordinary photographs of Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994), a self-taught photographer and pioneer of Nigerian photography. He served for 50 years as the first official photographer to the royal court of the Benin kingdom where he got closer than any other photographer to Oba Akenzua II, the traditional ruler of the Edo people, and his successor, Oba Erediauwa.

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 Over 3000 of his photographs have been archived at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

His record of Nigerian royalty and social class is one of the most extensive and well-preserved collections of the period as they document a half century of the Benin palace and the rituals, pageantry, and regalia of the obas (kings), and provide rare insight into the early histories and practices of studio pho­tography in West Africa. His insider’s perspective provides im­portant visual data for examining the transformations of Benin City during the early to mid-twentieth century.

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 1800s, the British seized control of Benin City, bringing with them their photographic traditions. British photographers depicted locals through the viewpoint of the colonist: the first photographs of Benin depicted defeated royal families in exile and burned palaces. As the first indigenous royal court photographer, Alonge changed this view. His work helped to usher in an era of Nigerians representing themselves and acting as keepers of their own history. This shift allowed the subjects to present themselves in a way that they felt was dignified and his talent was recognized early on by the British and was asked to take photographs for the colonial administrators in the 1930s and 1940s.. During this period, he became a founding member of the Benin Social Circle, a group of businessmen, leaders, and the educated elite.

His style of photography combined traditional and modern motifs. Alonge took portraits outdoors with a large format, glass plate camera and a locally made studio backdrop. Using kerosene lanterns, he developed the glass plate negatives at night and contact printed the images on gaslight paper. Reading instruction booklets from Kodak and Ilford, he taught himself to mix his own chemicals and use sunlight to develop his prints. In 1940, Alonge began to retouch, sepia tone, and hand-color his photographs. When electricity came to Benin in 1945, he was able to take studio portraits and develop his photos indoors. Alonge's first camera was a Kodak Brownie; later, he used a Rolliflex and other 35 mm cameras, and finally high-speed film.

Fragile Legacies  explores the contemporary significance of S.O. Alonge’s photography and

its relationship to the visual arts and cultures of the Benin-Edo peoples. It is the result of a unique collaboration between the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, to restore, research and publish the Alonge archive, and to reveal its historical, artistic and cultural importance to the local community.


Amy Staples is senior archivist at the National Museum of African Art

Flora S. Kaplan is the Faculty Emerita of Museum Studies at the Graduate School of Arts and Center, NYU

Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona is head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Benin, Nigeria

Tam Fiofori is a Nigerian filmmaker and photographer

Daniel Inneh is a former minister of Edo State and secretary to Oba Erediauwa

George Osodi is a leading Nigerian photographer and filmmaker



The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge

Amy J. Staples and Flora S. Kaplan

Contributions by Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, Tam Fiofori, Daniel Inneh, and George Osodi


Price US$49.95 / UK£32.50

ISBN 978-1-907804-99-1


208 pages

280 × 240 mm (9 ½ × 10 ½ in)

150 color illustrations

Published by GILES in association with the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution and National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria

Publication date July 2017


For Further Information and Review Copies:

In the UK contact: Liz Japes, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), Tel. 01273 480711
In the USA contact: Karen Lunstead, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), Tel: 302 231-8192