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Accepted paper:

The 21st century cultural self-reinvention: Mbopo ritual and the Calabar Festival in southern Nigeria



Paper long abstract:

There is an extensive literature on how Europeans re-invented Africa in tribal or ethnic frameworks with an emphasis on cultural performance and spectacles. This literature foregrounds the ways in which Africa was 'invented' or fabricated in the European imagination along traditional tribal lines in ways that suppressed any signs of modernity and exaggerated traditionalism. These inventions were public spectacles whether in the form of museum displays, Africans paraded on stage, or assumed esoteric ritualism. These profoundly shaped a Eurocentric discourse of 'othering' in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They contributed to the conceptual categories through which Africa was controlled, dominated and historicized during the imperial and colonial periods. Yet Africans always represented themselves in different ways using different registers. This paper will examine how important rituals and identities associated with indigenous forms of culture in Nigeria have been re-invented or re-imagined from within as public spectacles designed for television audiences and public viewing. It does so by exploring the complex issues of cultural representations associated with two highly popular cultural performances for Nigerian television (with continental and global audiences) from the 2010s: the first is a re-enactment of the mbopo ('fattening room') rituals associated with Ibibio/Efik girls' prenuptial initiation ceremonies (televised in 2013 with young women from all over Africa as cultural subjects) and the second is the Calabar Festival and Carnival held annually in December in which the different cultural groups across Nigeria perform their traditional dances in traditional dress for a vast and growing continental and global audience. (They are now advertised as the fourth largest festival in the world.) Based on participant observation and interviews at the Calabar Festival of 2019 and close visual analysis of the 'Fattening Room' television series of 2013 this paper examines the complex issues associated with the staging of African cultural identities in the 21st century within a substantial literature on this subject. How do we assess the degree of 'authenticity' of such rituals? To what extent do they capture and convey to modern public audiences, cultural rituals, traditions and concepts of the past and the present? What is the interplay between culture as entertainment and culture as lived experience in these visualised events? How does the visual language and media of television constrain or enable different levels of cultural presentation and performance? And how do these layers of analysis help us in revisiting the cultural history of Africa?

panel D19
Disciplinary trends in Africa: history (double panel)