Paa Joe: “Gates of No Return”

by: Ellen C. Caldwell
for Riot Material

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)…

Read the rest here at Riot Material.

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