“Royalty”: Nigerian traditional rulers like you have never seen them before

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Pictures of Nigerian traditional rulers by George Osodi
Left: Katsina Palace, 2012, Right: HRH Queen Haji a Hadizatu Ahmedu, 2012, George Osodi. Courtesy of Tafeta Gallery

Nigeria is a country of superlatives. Its population of 186 million, the 7th largest in the world, originates from over 250 ethnic groups. This rich blend of people, of diverse cultural customs and languages, has been singled out as a source of discord and endless infighting.

Now, the photographer George Osodi, has set out to turn over that narrative and celebrate the country’s diversity with a series of photographs, “Royalty”. In a project spanning over six years and continuing, the photographer has crisscrossed Nigeria to capture the images of one hundred traditional rulers and their courts. Seven of these pictures are on show at Tafeta Gallery in London.

It is a departure from George Osodi’s previous work. He came to international attention after the Associated Press published his photojournalistic work “depicting an explosion of munitions in Lagos”. He subsequently documented the oil spillage in the Delta Region in Nigeria, before focusing on the modern day Monarchs of Nigeria in an attempt to present a different perspective on Nigeria.

Picture of the Olu of Warri
HRM Ogiame Atuwatse II, The Olu of Warri, George Osodi, 2012. Courtesy of Tafeta Gallery

The selected large-scale pictures on display are astonishing. The traditional leaders have been captured in all their splendor and glory. From the flamboyant Alaafin of Oyo Empire, to the late Oba of Benin Kingdom in a show-stopping red outfit, they offer a glimpse into the rich and diverse cultural practices of Nigeria. Then, in the nook of the gallery lies the unexpected: a picture of HRH Queen Hajia a Hadizatu Ahmedu, a Female Leader in the north of the country, further shattering some gender stereotypes of the country.

Picture of Emir of Kano's Rolls Royce, George Osodi, 2012.
Emir of Kano’s Rolls Royce, George Osodi, 2012. Courtesy of Tafeta Gallery

The rulers do not have an official constitutional role. However, as traditional sovereigns, they are pivotal in the life of their regions and their people. The influence of some is far-reaching, up to the national level. The “Royalty” series connects the dots between them, as affirmative guarantors of the tradition. The picture of the Emir of Kano, wearing his traditional outfit and sitting in a quintessentially British car, the classic Rolls Royce references the country’s past: the colonisation and the meeting of two cultures. The picture is also a visual reminder, that these rulers, some of whom have been educated abroad, have struck a delicate balance between tradition and modernity. As heirs to those who have faced adversity, defeat and subjugation before reinventing themselves as modern-day monarchs, they could be shining lights for a shifting Nigeria on a quest to define its identity.

In the past, the ancestors of these rulers have been unwilling participants in photo sessions, under the gaze of photographers eager to capture their “otherness”, their alterity. Their decedents are rewriting history. They stand proudly with dignity under the gaze of a photographer who is collaborating with them, this time, to capture their “oneness” as a nation. George Osodi said he took these pictures for “posterity”. These pictures sit at the junction of History and Art as impressive artworks and indeed remarkable records for future generations.

The exhibition continues until February 12th at the Tafeta Gallery in London.

This article is part of the new series Art.Matters.  People have questioned interest and investment in Art in Africa because there are far more pressing issues to deal with. You know, the usual: Health, Education, Security … the list goes on. We see Art as a fundamental component in shaping the future of the continent. It asks thought-provoking and uncomfortable questions, shapes the culture. Art speaks to the way we look at our heritage and set out to face the future.

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