Joseph Tetteh Ashong, known as Paa Joe, is a wood carver famous for his figurative “fantasy coffins” hand-carved in Accra, Ghana. In the 1950s, these coffins, also known in Ghana as abeduu adekai, translated to mean “receptacles of proverbs,” became popular. Kane Kwei first popularized these coffins and Paa Joe apprenticed under Kwei, his mother’s cousin. As some of the first and most famous coffin makers, they are known for making famous these coffins for Ga funerals in southern Ghana. The reference to proverbs makes sense, as artists would visually translate an important proverb or aspect of the dead’s life into a carved physical vessel that carries them into a symbolic journey to the afterlife.
A cocoa farmer, for instance, might be buried in a large coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod. Or a mother of five, might be buried in a coffin shaped like a mother hen with five chicks at her feet. These carved coffins speak to both who you were on earth and to the journey of the afterlife to a heavenly or metaphysical realm after death. As such, these coffins are both poignant and playful.
Paa Joe’s exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in New York focused not on coffins, however, but on a different series of hand-carved works that manage to carry a much more sobering tone than his coffins. His exhibit, Gates of No Return, features a series of large wooden sculptures displaying the slave forts and castles that line Ghana’s coast (he made all thirteen, and the museum showcased seven).
To capture the likeness of the buildings, Paa Joe visited the forts, observing all rooms meticulously, taking photographs, and sketching as he went. Additionally, he also studied the research of the late and great Kwesi J. Anquandah, Ghana’s first archaeologist, who documented these buildings in his 1999 book Castles and Forts of Ghana.
For anyone who has travelled to Ghana, you would know these forts as the somber and ghostly white fortresses that dot Ghana’s coastline as far as your eye can see. And for anyone who has visited these forts (many are now tourist destinations), you would remember the most haunting of all aspects of these buildings is the door leading from the prison rooms where human beings were kept in inhumane conditions and were eventually led in chains to t he ocean through an arched shape door, now labeled “the Door (or Gate) of No Return.” These forts, or “castles,” are chilling as hallowed physical spaces that once helped to churn wheels of the Transatlantic slave trade, brutally turning people into commodities. The exhibit reminds viewers that on President Obama’s 2009 visit to the Cape Coast Castle, he noted that “these sites epitomize the beginning of the African American experience.” As such, these are similar sacred sites to Holocaust camps like Auschwitz, although the site of the forts are not always treated as such when tourists wander about taking photos.
Part of what is so important in the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibit, then, is twofold — through Paa Joe’s work, the museum is able to bring these forts to a larger public, specifically a greater number of people than might be able to go to Ghana. In this way, there is exposure in touring the architectural remnants of slavery’s brutal past. Additionally, the exhibit is able to set a more sacred tone of mourning and silence for visitors who are viewing these large-scale sculptures.
The museum provides commentary from art historian Nana Oforiatta Ayim. Here, she complicates the topic more than I ever read or saw when I myself visited the forts in Ghana:
“In their foundations, these structures hold the histories not only of trade, but also of oppression, exploitation, and imperialism. Some of these castles are relics, and others have been turned into museums—tourist sites described by the Ghana Tourist Authority as ‘treasures par excellence,’ which is perhaps a little jarring to the majority of African American visitors returning to the “Door of No Return,” wanting to understand viscerally the origins of the trauma and dehumanization of the Transatlantic slave trade.”
Later Oforiatta Ayim notes, “The sculptures of Paa Joe . . . are seen as coffins in Ghana and as art in the West; they represent a living metaphor of the juxtaposition of artistry and function. They embody former sites of the slave trade from which millions departed unwillingly for passage on which many millions perished. They became coffins, communal sites of remembrance and honoring for the dead.”
Through commentaries like both of Oforiatta Ayim’s above, the museum helps visitors to experience the exhibit more deeply, in exploring some of the complex issues that visitors experience both at the forts in Ghana and here in New York at the museum.
One wall label mentions that Paa Joe’s series was commissioned by the now-late art dealer Claude Simard, noting that he visited Paa Joe’s “Accra workshop in 2004. Still raw from the tragedy of 9/11, Simard approached the project politically and poetically as a way to connect two devastating historical events.” I found myself wanting to know more about this commission and its purpose — and how Simard saw the two events as being tied. Was this an educational mission? Did he envision the show to tour as it is now?
Without knowing for sure, one can only speculate. Regardless of the Simard’s intentions, though, it is clear that Paa Joe’s sculptural replicas speak to the past and the present in profound ways.
Paa Joe’s exhibit “Gates of No Return” ran at the American Folk Museum through February 24th, 2019. You can learn more about Paa Joe’s work and see examples of his coffins by following him on Instagram and Artsy.
Ellen C. Caldwell is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Caldwell is an LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.