search the africa institute site

Associate Professor of African History

Associate Professor of African History

John Thabiti Willis is a scholar of the social and cultural history of Africa in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds with a Ph.D. in History from Emory University, USA.  He holds the position of Associate Professor of African History at The Africa Institute, Sharjah. Additionally, he also serves as an Associate Professor of African history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, USA.

Previously, Willis served as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies from 2008 to 2010 and as Director of Africana Studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, USA between 2019 to 2022. He was also a Carleton College Mellon New Directions Fellow, a position he held between 2020 to 2023.

Willis's research primarily focuses on the history and politics of masquerade performances and the organizations that orchestrated them among the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria, spanning from pre-colonial to modern times. His Ph.D. thesis and first book extensively explore this topic.

In his 2018 book titled "Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town, Otta, 1774-1928," Willis delves into the role of institutions employing ritual masquerades in reflecting and shaping changing political and economic relations during pivotal periods such as the rise and decline of West African empires, Atlantic slavery, the spread of Islam, and the establishment of Christian missions and British colonialism. This book has gained recognition as a finalist for the 2019 Best Book Prize (previously known as the Herskovits award) by the African Studies Association. Moreover, it recently won the 2020 Yoruba Studies Book Prize, which honors the best books on Yoruba people and their culture published over a three-year period.


Over the past decade, Willis has dedicated his research to uncovering the historical and cultural significance of Africa's contributions to pearling in the Gulf. His research utilizes a range of sources, including museum exhibits, manumission records, and heritage performances. In his latest project, Willis is collecting oral histories through ethnography and geographic information system methodologies to analyze the biographies of individuals who were involved in the pearling industry.


  • "Beyond “Man” vs. Nature: Pearling and the Construction of Gender, Generation, and Heritage in Bahrain." Hawwa 19, no. 1 (2021): 102-127.
  • “‘The performance of servitude’: gendered and racialized representations of citizenship at the Bahrain National Museum.” In The Art of Minorities: Cultural Representation in Museums of the Middle East and North Africa, pp. 56-71. Edinburg University Press, 2020.
  • "Trickster Theatre: The Poetics of Freedom in Urban Africa by Jesse Weaver Shipley, and: Yorùbá Performance, Theatre and Politics: Staging Resistance by Glenn Odom." TDR: The Drama Review 63, no. 1 (2019): 175-178.
  • Masquerading Politics: kinship, gender, and ethnicity in a Yoruba town. Indiana University Press, 2018.
  • "Bridging the Archival-Ethnographic Divide: Gender, Kinship, and Seniority in the Study of Yoruba Masquerade." History in Africa 44 (2017): 63-100.
  • "A visible silence: Africans in the history of pearl diving in Dubai, UAE." In Museums in Arabia, pp. 54-70. Routledge, 2016.
  • "Negotiating gender, power, and spaces in masquerade performances in Nigeria." Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 3, 2014.

Meet Our Faculty