On one cold day in New Jersey, I met a king. His Royal Majesty Benjamin Ikenchuku Keaboreku I, the Dein of Nigeria’s Agbor Kingdom, had come to see Royals and Regalia, a new exhibit at the Newark Museum on Nigeria’s royals. For the Dein, the exhibit showed that Nigeria’s greatest asset is its dizzying array of ethnic groups and languages. He stated, “When you have so many different people in one place, it can either go the American way, where you have brought so many people together successfully…or you can allow it to cause you problems. So this exhibition by God’s grace will do much for us as a people.” Royals and Regalia does just that; it reveals the similarities between the many groups that together comprise Nigeria.When photographer George Osodi began the project in 2006, Nigeria’s political situation was perhaps the farthest thing from his mind. The photographer was assigned to photograph England’s Prince Charles for his 2006 visit to Nigeria, but snuck in a few shots of the Nigerian dignitaries at the beginning of a reception. Osodi recalls, “I quickly approached the Emir [of Zaria] before the event for a picture, and he said, ‘You’re free to ask—go ahead!’ His pages came right up and swarmed him, and started adjusting everything for the camera.” Osodi captured the scene, and it is displayed in the very first frame before the entrance to the main room of the exhibit. This candid snapshot encapsulates the frantic bustle of last-minute preparations that, one imagines, accompanied every other royal portrait in the series.A visitor entering the exhibit’s main room is first struck by the sheer enormity of the portraits. They are also incredibly detailed, highlighting individual blades of emerald grass and even the gray hairs that creep up one aging monarch’s forearm. Visitor Sandra Ruffin of East Orange, New Jersey, offered the following comment: “Looking at the pictures online is one thing. But in person, the photographs are not flat—there’s a depth, both intellectually and physically, that you just don’t see on the Web.”
The intimacy of these portraits reflects how Osodi was drawn in by the politics and the history of the monarchs over the course of his project. The artist recalls, “When I met with the chiefs, they sat me down and told me stories about their history, stories that went back centuries. Sometimes they would take so long that I would get worried about the light outside so we could catch a good photograph.”Some of Nigeria’s many rulers are elected, while others inherit their office. The position does not grant any official political power under the nation’s Constitution. But these intricate histories give the royals a great deal of informal power, especially for the rulers of those monarchies that existed before British colonization. Nigeria’s kings are dispensers of justice, and often act as the spokespeople for the Nigerian citizens that they represent.They gain their power from tradition in the sense that they are active guardians of a living institution. Larger families continuously slough off to form new kingdoms that retain cultural ties to the old kingdom. According to curator Christa Clarke, the oil in Nigeria’s Delta Region has created a flurry of microscopic new kingdoms—the rulers can easily demand a share of the profits gleaned from drilling. These new Delta kingdoms exact a heavy social toll. As brothers feud and entire families quarrel, some of Nigeria’s kingdoms have been torn apart in their avaricious pursuit of oil wealth.Faced with the violence and the beauty of Nigeria’s aristocrats, Osodi chose to feature only those monarchs that have bettered their kingdoms in tangible ways. Lucky Ochuko Ararile, the Ovie of Umiaghwa Abraka Kingdom, is one example. He was elected to the monarchy after he worked to disarm militants in the Niger Delta. Another example, maybe the most exemplary, is Queen Hajiya Hadizatu Ahmedu, the Magajiya of Kumbwada. She presides over a rural matriarchy as the only female ruler in Nigeria’s Muslim North. Osodi recounts that male emirs governed Kumbwada until a string of them mysteriously died when they ascended to the throne. The seat was transferred to a woman, which allegedly ended the curse. The Queen is now Kumbwada’s sixth consecutive female ruler. While other emirs in the region refuse to deal with her as an equal, the 33,000 inhabitants of Kumbwada accept her as an advocate for women’s rights and education in a region (Kano State) where less than half the population can read and write.
Nigeria and the West interact everywhere in the exhibit, once one knows just where to look. The Ooni of Ife, for example, rests in front of no less than five air conditioners. Another ruler flaunts his new furniture from Dubai. These displays hardly show that Western values have corrupted Nigerian kingship. Instead, these are foreign goods that gain their value from scarcity. The monarchs under British rule, for example, did not throw away their beaded crowns overnight to put on the hot, scratchy wigs of British barristers. Instead, a new hybrid developed—a Yoruba beaded crown that flaunts distinctively British curls around the edges.The ominous rise of Boko Haram has threatened the stately world that Nigeria’s monarchs represent. Like many of Nigeria’s monarchs themselves, Boko Haram is inspired by a historical emirate—the 19th-century Bornu Caliphate that once extended around Lake Chad, including parts of present-day Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. Many of the monarchs that have opposed Boko Haram’s expansion have regal ancestors in the Sokoto Caliphate that fought the Bornu Caliphate long before Nigeria even existed as a nation.Boko Haram’s suicide bombers target Nigerian monarchs as significant opponents of the group’s brand of militant Islam. The current Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, urged Nigerians to form militias to counter the insurgency after the Nigerian military lost control of significant regions of Bornu State. Boko Haram has retaliated accordingly. To date, the group has attacked the former and present Emirs of Kano, the Emir of Gwoza (who died in the attack), the Shehu of Borno, and the Emir of Fika. These monarchs are nominally spiritual leaders, but their monarchical splendor also translates to significant political power in the regions where Nigerian state remains weak.Some commentators, including the Dein of Agbor (quoted above), feel that the country’s monarchs are not doing enough to combat Boko Haram. He stated, “ I believe that the roles the monarchs can play are a lot more than the roles that they are playing…I think the more we can have leaders that are willing to be understanding, that are willing to dialogue, the better for us.” Many monarchs, including the Dein, occupy positions in Nigeria’s universities or civil service. They often (as with the Dein) administer or teach in different regions from the lands they rule, even with students of different confessions. Through their role as peacemakers, these monarchs advocate for a shared, aspirational mode of national belonging that extends beyond ethnic, regional, and confessional lines.Osodi’s photographic peregrinations avoided the Eastern portion of Nigeria’s Middle Belt. It was too dangerous to travel there since the rise of Boko Haram, but Osodi plans to expand his exhibit to include Eastern monarchs once travel becomes safer. He also intends to bring Royals and Regalia to Nigeria, though he feels that his audience exists just as much outside the country as within it. Osodi comments, “One of my goals is to communicate to the Nigerian Diaspora, in Europe and also in America. Many Nigerians have traveled far, and have had children of their own—and their children don’t know the cultural value of Nigeria.” One doesn’t need to know about the latest developments in Nigeria’s electoral drama to understand the beauty of Osodi’s exhibit. The photographs in the collection bridge Nigeria’s mythical past with its post-colonial present in a way that is accessible to policy experts and the uninitiated alike.Photojournalists in the American tradition, from Jakob Riis to Dorothea Lange, often depict their subjects with a gritty realism. It is both a limitation and a benefit of the genre, as a snapshot is simply best at depicting things the way they are. Osodi turns this accepted formula on its head. The very first candid shot in the exhibit is the exception, not the rule. Nigeria’s radiant monarchs are shown in their most colorful finery through the eyes of their subjects as they would like to be seen. And what we gain from it is a sense of Nigeria’s place in the world, a window into centuries of history that engages us in the present, and an eagerness to transform borrowed items from the past to make peace in the present day.Royals and Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria’s Monarchs, photographed by George Osodi, will be on display at New Jersey’s Newark Museum through August 9, 2015.[Feature picture: HRM Benjamin Ikenchuku Keagborekuzi I, The Dein of Agbor Kingdom, formerly held a Guinness World record for his accession to the throne at 28 months of age. The portraits represent the Dein’s family and the Oba of Benin, a powerful medieval kingdom with close ties to the Dein of Agbor]