Decades before Joseph Tetteh-Ashong’s work was classified as fine art, the 73-year-old master craftsman from Ghana, affectionately known as Paa Joe, was regarded as the most celebrated figurative coffin maker of his generation. His over-the-top caskets, or abeduu adekai (proverb boxes), took the shape of everything from supersized chili peppers to Coke bottles to luxury sports cars. Equal parts celebratory and utilitarian, the vessels were designed to ferry the dead into the afterlife with unapologetic style.
When Paa Joe: Gates of No Return opens Saturday at the High Museum of Art, the carvings on display (through May 31) will represent a passage of a different kind. One that stands as a low point in human history. Note: Paa Joe will spend part of the evening of March 6 in the galleries in conjunction with other special events that night.
Seven large-scale, painted wood sculptures chosen for this exhibition — which originated at New York City’s American Folk Art Museum — are among a group of 13 commissioned by the late artist, collector and art dealer Claude Simard. The architectural models are based on fortresses built by European colonizers along Ghana’s Gold Coast in the 1500s. The compounds were first used as outposts to trade goods but came to be known as slave castles once human life was commodified during the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the 16th–19th centuries.The imposing compounds were also called “gates of no return,” owing to the psycho-spiritual and physical deaths that awaited the 6 million or so Africans who crossed the threshold from Ghana en route to the Caribbean and the Americas.
Some of the former slave castles — typically perched high on the coastline, irregularly shaped, and featuring watch towers and whitewashed walls — have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Others have been reclaimed, repurposed and reoccupied as schools, prisons or municipal buildings. In 1902, Christiansborg Castle, established in 1661 by the Danish government, became the seat of government in Accra and houses the offices of Ghana’s president until 2014.
For Paa Joe, the process of looking back at the structures gave him insights on mankind’s capacity for depravity and redemption. “I had to travel many times to the sites, looking at them carefully before making them,” he says. “These are pieces that you have to travel afar to watch and come back to make. They are about the identity of humanity. Their lasting message is that we can’t maltreat our fellow humans.”
The High Museum is the first Southern venue for Gates of No Return and, as such, will mark the Year of Return, Ghana 2019, a major landmark spiritual and birth-right journey that asks the global African family to commemorate the 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.
Archival documents, recordings, photographs and a pair of short films by Benjamin Wigley and art historian Nana Oforiatta-Ayim will provide additional context for Paa Joe’s creative practice and give points of entry into the exhibition’s history. Maps will pinpoint sites in metro Atlanta that trafficked in enslaved people or benefited from the forced labor. The goal is to help museum-goers consider potential connections between Ghana’s Gold Coast, Atlanta and our own ancestries.
Three iPad stations will give visitors a macro-view of lives affected by the slave trade. The video, created and provided by Slave Voyages, helps illuminate the more than 36,000 crossings between Africa and the New World,
On March 6, in honor of Ghana’s Independence Day, HIGH Frequency Friday will jump-start the weekend with exhibition tours led by High folk art curator Katherine Jentleson and organizing curator Valérie Rousseau. The evening will feature Paa Joe’s gallery visit, DJs playing West African music, Afrobeat dance lessons, drawing lessons, Ghana-inspired food and a specialty cocktail.
Jentleson likens Paa Joe’s sculptures and the experience of bearing witness to the “haunting, humbling” feeling she got when visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., or any Holocaust museum.
“Our exhibition was designed to have these incredible works of art shine,” she says. “But we also want to help people digest the histories that are implicated by these sculptures . . . so we’ve created meaningful spaces for people to absorb and reconcile our collective past while honoring the lives that passed through these gates of no return.”