Magazine article Humanities

Royal Roots IN NIGERIA

Magazine article Humanities

Royal Roots IN NIGERIA

Article excerpt

NEW JERSEY THE IMAGES ARE LARGE AND LUSH, STARTLING in their near life-sized appearances. You feel as if you are in the same rooms as these elegantly dressed and somewhat mysterious men and women. Just who are these regal figures from what we know as the modern African nation of Nigeria?

They are elderly men who are descendants of tribal kings and who trace their monarchies to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is a young woman of thirty-seven, a pharmacist in Texas, who stepped in as regent of a kingdom when her father died a little more than a year ago. Some have PhDs in economics, or law degrees, or business degrees from Stanford and Columbia. And there is Queen Hajiya Hadizatu Ajmedu, magajiya of Kumbwada, the latest in a line of six generations of women to rule a small Muslim community in northern Nigeria. The queen succeeded her grandmother, who died in 1998 at the age of 113, and she is known, we are told, for her advocacy of women's education.

They are portrayed in an exhibition of photographs by George Osodi, "Royals & Regalia, Inside the Palaces of Nigeria's Monarchs," on view at the Newark Museum with support from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

The exhibit teaches about a critical part of an African culture subsumed by British colonial rule when hundreds of tribal kingdoms were merged more than one hundred years ago to form the artificial boundaries of Nigeria. These royal families have no constitutional standing, but enjoy a significant personal importance within their communities. They are figures who hold great political and social influence, serving as crucial go-betweens for their communities and the central government, and in Osodi's view helping to forge a national unity by the very nature of their great diversity.

"Modern Nigeria is still made up of different groups of people and religions who have their own monarchs, and these monarchs are still important within the Nigerian landscape," says Osodi. "They are used by the government to bring peace and keep their cultural heritage intact. For many ordinary people they are the link to the government."

That was the force that moved Osodi to launch his longterm project. In the process he makes it clear that at the root of Nigeria are hundreds of ethnic groups speaking hundreds of different languages. It is not even clear just how many kingdoms were in place before British colonial rule.

Originally a banker, Osodi turned to photography when he realized that banking could never be his calling. As a child and young man he was always interested in art, but found no way to express himself. He bowed under family pressure and left college to work in a bank. Soon, he began taking and developing photographs, and found the métier that would sustain him.

In order to pay his bills, however-and pay for his photography-he got a staff job at the local newspaper in Lagos, the Comet, where his work was soon noticed. He was hired by the Associated Press to be its man in Nigeria. His photojournalistic assignments led him to greater awareness of the issues in the Delta region of Nigeria, where he is from, an area rich in oil. Osodi compiled photo essays of the region, his city of Lagos, of back streets, and modern metropolises. He documented the environmental costs of oil exploration, and the impact on the environment of gold mining in Ghana. He chronicled the lives of residents of his hometown of Lagos, assembling portfolios that won critical acclaim. …

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