The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness
Serving as the centerpiece of the large-scale exhibition, The Gold Coast Slave Castles of Paa Joe honour the Ghanaian legacy of abebuu adekai, or fantasy coffins. The ornate sarcophagi celebrate death and the afterlife, sculpted in the form of objects representative of the deceased and their interests. In the 1950s, abebuu adekai were used only by chiefs and priests, but more recently have become a growing trend in surrounding areas of Ghana, attracting the attention of contemporary art museums and galleries worldwide. In 2004, Claude Simard, the late co-founder of Jack Shainman Gallery, commissioned thirteen coffins in the form of European castles erected along the Gold Coast in the 15th century, which served as holding pens for America-bound slaves. These sculptures memorialize the captives in the custom of abebuu adekai, and recall the bleak American history that helped to integrate human suffering with Western tradition.
Paa Joe transforms the practical coffin into a work of art, and he, as the carpenter and craftsman, becomes a custodian of the spirit. This transcendental shift from the material to the metaphysical is the point of convergence for the works included in this exhibition. From the earliest artifacts on display, decorative Neolithic Chinese pottery, to the most contemporary works by Nina Chanel Abney, David Altmejd, Kerry James Marshall, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, to name a few, the artists presented here address in their own distinct way the notion of art as celebration, as a vehicle for personal salvation, or more broadly, creating beauty out of—or despite—one’s surroundings. This diverse collection of works and objects reflect the wide-ranging influences that guide the gallery’s program.
The universal drive to make art facilitates opportunity to reflect on the complexities of existence, offering perspectives of possibility, hope, and freedom, and a departure from the mundane. Bringing together works and objects from across historical period, culture, or geography, the exhibition presents the religiously inspired 17th century oil paintings of Francisco Pacheco to the Fauvist works of Jacques Villon, the anti-Nationalist drawings of George Grosz to the gregarious busts of John Ahearn. These artworks from past and present express the joys of making and collecting, excavate lost narratives, and explore timeless themes that recur throughout history, from portraiture, to the motif of the Trinity and the enduring story of David and Goliath.
Joseph Ashong (Paa Joe) was born in 1947 in Ghana. He is a figurative palanquin and coffin artist He has featured his work in major art exhibitions in Europe, Japan and the United States. Paa Joe’s work are in the collections of several art museums worldwide, including the British Museum in London.
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