Contemporary African royals, in regalia and complexity
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Contemporary African royals, in regalia and complexity
Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman, 2013. Single-channel digital video; 11min, 57sec. Fridman Gallery © Wura-Natasha Ogunji. Photo Credit Ema Edosio

by Precious Adesina

LONDON.- On a wall of London’s Tate Modern, a large photo from 2012 depicts a seated Nigerian king, wearing a green beaded hat and a lavish robe with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II printed on the front.

Shot by George Osodi, it’s a photograph of a “very old king” who was one of the monarchs who welcomed Elizabeth when she visited Nigeria for the first time in 1956, the Nigerian photographer said recently by phone.

On the same wall, another photo has its king dressed in glistening red attire and sitting on a matching velvet throne with gold adornments. Taken in 2022, this photo is of a newer Nigerian king, who came to power in this millennium, Osodi said.

These photos — titled “HRM Agbogidi Obi James Ikechukwu Anyasi II, Obi of Idumuje Unor” and “Pere of Gbaramatu. His Imperial Majesty, Oboro Gbaraun II, Aketekpe, Agadagba” respectively — are among the works from Osodi’s ongoing “Nigerian Monarch” series on view here until Jan. 14 as part of “A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography.”

According to its curator, Osei Bonsu, the exhibition aims to steer away from typical Western imagery associated with African cultures, which tends to be superficial or stereotypical, he said.

As part of this effort, Bonsu selected works from artists exploring systems of power in Africa outside Western colonialism, he said. This includes spirituality, as in Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s 1989 series “Bodies of Experience,” depicting Black men performing Yoruba rituals, and traditional roles for women, explored in Kudzanai Chiurai’s series “We Live in Silence,” from 2017, which reimagines various historical narratives with African women at its center.

Work by Osodi and German-Ghanian artist Zohra Opoku, meanwhile, considers the contemporary role of monarchies in their countries.

In the late 19th century, a frequent outcome of European colonialism in West Africa was the merging of numerous ethnic groups — many with their own monarchies — to form a single country, as in the case of Nigeria, Olutayo Adesina, a history professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, said in a recent interview.

In countries taken over by France, the French “tried to abolish the tribal institution,” Adesina added, but elsewhere, different regions continue to have monarchies, now with ceremonial roles rather than constitutional powers, representing the groups that existed before the continent was colonized.

“They hold an incredibly important role within their society as custodians of cultural heritage,” Bonsu said.

Contemporary monarchs often support their government in an advisory role, Osodi said, noting that, like any system that puts people in positions of power, these roles can be abused, and not all titles are passed down a line of inheritance.

“Some are appointed because they are rich or because they fought for the community, but even an armed robber can become a king,” Osodi said, adding that fear can play a factor in these decisions.

While queens rule less often, especially in the conservative north of Nigeria where it is banned, there are a number of exceptions. In one 2012 photograph by Osodi titled “HRH Queen Hajiya Hadizatu Ahmedu Magajiya of Knubwada,” the Queen of Kumbwada sits in a long dark red gown and straw hat. According to news outlets in the country, a curse dating back more than 200 years prohibits men from taking up the throne in that area.

For Opoku, the German-born artist, exploring contemporary African royalty has meant focusing on her own heritage. When Opoku’s father, Chief Nana Opoku Gyabaah II of Asato, in the Volta region of Ghana, died, he left behind family photographs and Kente cloth, a textile traditionally worn by Ghanaian royalty.

In Opoku’s 2017 work “Queens and Kings,” on show at the Tate, photos she took of her family members wearing secondhand T-shirts are screen-printed onto recycled materials, with leaves covering their faces and Kente cloth patterns visible elsewhere in the piece.

The artist said the artwork was inspired by her first visit to Ghana in 2003, when she found copious amounts of clothes “donated” by various European charities being sold in local markets.

Every month, 60 million items of used clothes arrive in Ghana, according to a 2021 report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Forty percent of these garments end up as waste, causing an ongoing environmental crisis.

“What happens to our identity when the clothes are changed?” Opoku, who now lives in Ghana, said she is asking in “Queens and Kings.” In a society where clothes can serve as both status and cultural symbol, images of a Ghanaian royal family wearing clothes discarded from the West show how the identity of a place and people can become “blurry” when the culture around clothes is no longer associated with heritage, she said.

When Osodi photographs his subjects, he said, the monarchs “want to look nice and elegant, and I give them that freedom.”

Documenting these contemporary monarchs was a way to “celebrate the various rich cultures in Nigeria,” Osodi said.

He added, “Seeing people dressed in different regalia and garments in these different cultures is something we should be proud of.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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