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Glories of African Royalty Celebrated in Photography

Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba, King Balthasar, Shaka. These are only a few names of Africa's legendary rulers that resonate in history.

Yet few people realize that dozens of kings still reign in Africa today, albeit under vastly changed circumstances.

In his book African Kings, recently published in English for the first time, photographer Daniel Lainé portrays the beauty of Africa through 70 of its most important rulers.

Agboli-Agbo Dedjlani, King of Abomey, Benin
Photograph by Daniel Lainé

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Lainé, who is based in France, made a dozen trips to Africa over three years to create his collection of photographs. In some cases he had to follow rigorous protocol to secure audiences with rulers rarely seen in public.

In each instance, Lainé persuaded his photographic subject to don full traditional regalia, in itself a repository of ritual and lore.

The ethnographic descriptions in the book are the photographer's own observations and interpretations and some may defy rigorous academic research. The portraiture, however, speaks volumes on its own.

"The photos are interesting precisely because they show dignity and integrity on the faces of the rulers," says Benedict Carton, professor of African history at George Mason University, Virginia.

"The images also show clearly how tradition exists alongside modernity. The modern objects seen alongside kings in their regalia shows how they have been absorbed to become everyday pieces on the stage of traditional power."

'Living Gods'

Many of Africa's kings personify culture and religion, says Lainé. "Often, kings are worshipped as living gods."

Time has changed the political status of Africa's kings, but many still play important roles in their kingdoms.

"Every kingdom in Africa has a different relationship to the political authority of the country it is in," Lainé says. "Sometimes the governments use them as a relay between authority and people."

In Nigeria the government is obliged to consult the king on matters concerning each particular kingdom. But in the same country, Lainé notes, there is conflict between the government and the kings.

"In Côte d'Ivoire and Togo," he adds, "the kings are under the political authority, they do whatever the government tells them to do."

The wealth of African kings also varies by country.

"Some have become poor," Lainé says, "because they were dispossessed by the colonial masters or by African dictators. On the other hand, some have become very wealthy and have private jets, limos, and houses in different parts of the world."

In the face of wars, colonial occupation, revolutions, dictatorships, and other calamities, Africa's royal houses have demonstrated a deep-rooted tenacity.

"Because so many Africans have no confidence in their political leaders they place their trust in the traditional kings, people who represent culture so strongly," Lainé says.

"The kings no longer hold absolute power, but they retain a traditional and spiritual authority that is difficult for the Western mind to comprehend," he adds.

"I believe there will always be kings ruling in Africa."

This article was produced as part of National Geographic News' celebration of Black History Month. African Kings by Daniel Lainé is published by Ten Speed Press, November 2000.

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