Before Nigeria became an independent republic in the 1960s, monarchs ruled over hundreds of ethnic groups across the country. Though they no longer hold constitutional power, these monarchs’ heirs still play a vital role in the nation’s cultural landscape, often aiding in local conflict resolution.
An upcoming exhibit at the Newark Museum, “Royals and Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria’s Monarchs,” showcases 40 of Lagos-based George Osodi’s photographs, in which regional kings (and a queen) from more than 20 palaces across the country pose in ornate, colorful robes and jewelry on majestic thrones.
Osodi, who has worked as a photojournalist in Lagos for more than 15 years, seeks to “document Africa from an African perspective,” as he said in a statement. “The idea behind this project is to travel around this diverse country and go beyond the portraits to explore the subjects’ environments, exploring their architecture and fashion with the view to showcase and celebrate them and to mirror the country’s great culture through their personalities.”
Wearing brocaded robes and elaborate beaded crowns in mosaicked palaces, the fashions of Nigerian royalty are all splendor and pomp, in stark contrast to the stiff business suits and stuffy offices of contemporary Western political figures.
The majority of the 20 rulers pictured represent regional monarchies that existed before the founding of the nation of Nigeria in 1914. In 1963, when Nigeria became a republic within the Commonwealth, monarchies were stripped of constitutional powers. But kings still play an important role in the country’s political and social landscape–Osodi calls them “custodians of our cultural heritage and peace makers.” There are no official figures on the number of present-day kings, but Osodi suggests “there are as many kings as there are tribes.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the newer generation cannot relate with or identify their traditional rulers,” he writes on his website.
One goal of his project is to educate young Nigerians who have emigrated to the United States about their cultural heritage. The series presents diversity as a point of unity instead of as a divisive force in a country long ridden with religious and ethnic conflicts.
Royals and Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria’s Monarchs will open at the Newark Museum on February 25 and run through August 9, 2015.