Saturday, March 21, 2015

More Benin History than Photography

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through September 13, 2015

It's been a while since I've been to the African Art Museum; I think that's because they don't have as much space for rotating exhibits as the Sackler does.  Of course, much of the available space at present is taken up with the Cosby Collection show.  A pity that what should have been an interesting display has been overshadowed by the disturbing news concerning Bill Cosby.  I still intend to go see the show - it's not the art's fault that (if the stories are true) he's a predator.

But enough of that, let's focus our attention on the exhibit at hand, which deals with Benin and its photography.  I knew very little about Benin before I came to this show, and didn't think I'd learn so much about this part of the world by seeing it.  In fact, the show is far more about the history and art of Benin than it is about Chief S. O. Alonge, one of Benin's early photographers.

Alonge became the official court photographer and produced the first official photographs of the royal court.  Many of the photographs included in the show come from the Eliot Elisofon photographic archives, which called to mind the show I saw a while back about that collection.

Benin is a region in what is now Nigeria, and the king rules from Benin City.  The British were involved in the area for many years, not always happily, either for themselves or the people of Benin.  Perhaps my favorite historical photograph in the collection is one of Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to the area in 1956 greeting Oba Akenzua II (the ruler at the time), who is in full regalia.  The Queen looks like she could have stepped out of a London garden party, so the juxtaposition does provoke a smile.

Alonge also had his own photography studio and was a successful wedding and portrait photographer.  The photograph shown above is quite arresting - the reproduction really doesn't do it justice.  The young woman pictured is very pretty and her expression is quite charming and friendly.

Of the art on display, I was very much impressed with an enormous elephant tusk with quite elaborate carving.  I felt guilty about admiring it: the craftsmanship is amazing, but the poor elephant!

Verdict: An intriguing show of interest both to those who like photography and 20th century African history.

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