Karin Barber, Emeritus Professor, Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham

Doing fieldwork in the archive: print culture, publics and popular genres in colonial Lagos

A faded, crumbling collection of colonial newspapers might not seem to be the most fertile ground for ethnographic fieldwork. But if anthropology is interested in how new cultural things come into the world, and if ethnography is the best method for tracing their emergence, then fieldwork in an archive is not only possible but rewarding. The print culture of 1920s Lagos, Nigeria, was innovative and effervescent. Numerous new weekly and daily newspapers were started in this decade, responding to a growing literate population and a hectic political situation. Five of these papers were in the Yoruba language and sought to convene a wider audience than had previously been included in the Lagos reading public. They made extensive use of epistolary styles, recurrent serial formats, and intense modes of address to the reader. I will suggest that these characteristics lent themselves to creative experimentation, resulting in the establishment of several new genres – including the famous confessions of a fictional Lagos “harlot”, Sẹgilọla - the formation of which can be traced from week to week in tandem with a rapidly-evolving social and political situation. 

Karin Barber is Emeritus Professor of African Cultural Anthropology at the University of Birmingham and Centennial Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research focuses on Yoruba oral literature, popular theatre and print culture, and she has also done comparative work on popular culture and textual production across Africa. Her most recent books are Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel (2012) and A History of African Popular Culture (2018).

All seminars in the series.