Cultural initiation adds to Harn exhibit
Doctoral Candidate in Art History
College of Fine Arts, School of Art and Art History
Most students only read about other cultures, but Jordan Fenton took his research a big step further – he became a member of the society he studies.
A doctoral candidate in art history, Fenton was inspired to become an art historian while at Kent State University, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history, and became interested in the secret Ekpe society in southeast Nigeria after learning about it in class.
“The Ekpe society fascinated me because its masquerade displays helped me think about art in a different way … as a multimedia theatrical event that includes many artistic elements and layered meanings for the society at large,” he said. “I was also fascinated because the Ekpe art and masquerade performance received little attention.”
Fenton told his professor he wanted the Ekpe society to be the focus of his research and to be initiated in the society. His dream was realized in June 2008. “I was fortunate to become accepted in their culture, and the initiation was a tremendous honor,” he said.
Fenton returned to Nigeria in summer 2009 and subsequently was initiated into the rank of chief and given the title isung mbakara, which safeguards the integrity of all rituals and functions. He has since spent 15 months with the society.
While in Nigeria, Fenton commissioned an Ebonko masquerade ensemble and selected an Ekpe chief’s attire for the Harn Museum of Art’s collection. The works will be displayed in the upcoming exhibition “Africa Interweave: Textile Diasporas,” from Feb. 8 to May 8. “My research, including the commissioned works of art for the Harn Museum, will assist in preserving and documenting the Ekpe society,” Fenton said.
The exhibition demonstrates the continuity of African artists’ fascination with textiles and the inter-relationships of textiles across cultures by juxtaposing traditional and contemporary textiles, garments, paintings, sculpture and photography. Fenton assisted Susan Cooksey, Harn curator of African art, in developing content for the exhibition and also contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue.
“I don’t believe in creating further boundaries between you and your subjects. If you are not native to the culture you study, you have to become absorbed in their culture,” he said. “This is definitely a lifelong research interest of mine.”