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Past Exhibitions


Architectural castle sculpture by Paa Joe.

Paa Joe: Gates of No Return

February 29–August 16, 2020

Artist and master craftsman Joseph Tetteh-Ashong (Ghanaian, born 1947), also known as Paa Joe, is the most celebrated figurative coffin maker of his generation. In the tradition of figurative coffins—or abeduu adekai (which means “proverb boxes”)—the structures represent the unique lives of the dead.

This exhibition comprises a series of large-scale, painted wood sculptures commissioned in 2004 and 2005 that represent architectural models of Gold Coast castles and forts, which served as way stations for more than six million Africans sold into slavery and sent to the Americas and the Caribbean between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Once they were forced through the “Gates of No Return,” these enslaved people started an irreversible and perilous journey during which many died. Relying on traditional techniques and materials, Joe crafts his sculptures to represent vessels ferrying the dead into the afterlife that speak to spirits separated from bodies in trauma.

In addition to the seven architectural models, the exhibition features archival documents and recordings, including photographs and short films by award-winning filmmaker Benjamin Wigley and art historian Nana Oforiatta Ayim, curator of Ghana’s 58th Pavilion for the 2019 Venice Biennale.

The High Museum’s presentation of this show also emphasizes the relationship of Paa Joe’s sculptures to both global and local histories of slavery, through a largescale map of the transatlantic slave trade researched using slavevoyages.org, a version of this timelapse video, and an Atlanta map marked with sites that played a role in slavery.

Virtual Tour

Click on an image below to learn more.

“I had to travel many times to the sites, looking at them carefully before making them. 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.” –Paa Joe

About Joseph Tetteh-Ashong, a.k.a. Paa Joe

Paa Joe headshot.

Paa Joe, photo courtesy of Benjamin Wigley

Paa Joe was fifteen years old when he began a twelve-year apprenticeship with his mother’s cousin, Kane Kwei (1922–1992), who is recognized as the first to popularize the use of figurative coffins for burial. After he left Kwei’s workshop, Paa Joe went to the coast for two years to carve boats, raising the money needed to open his own business, Paa Joe Coffin Works, in Nungua in 1976. Since then, he has created more than two thousand coffins and trained young artists such as Daniel Mensah, Eric Kpakpo, and Kudjoe Affutu, all of whom have become successful figurative coffin makers. Paa Joe paints his wood sculptures himself or outsources the job to other artists in his workshop. Among his regular collaborators is the sign painter Daniel Anum Jasper, who notably worked on Paa Joe’s 2004–2005 castles and forts. In 2008, Paa Joe relocated his company to Pobiman, in the Greater Accra region.

The Harrowing Journey into Slavery

Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were captured and trafficked to the New World. The map below retraces some of the documented routes taken from the seven slave forts represented in this exhibition based on research at Emory University’s interactive slave voyages web database and the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. The fortresses, which were nicknamed “slave castles,” were overcrowded, dark prisons where Africans were held captive while they waited for ships to arrive to bring them to North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Around 6.9 million enslaved people were trafficked to Latin America or the Caribbean, while half a million people were sent to North America. Brazil was the final destination for most enslaved Africans, as the Portuguese required massive amounts of forced labor for their colonial sugar and mining economies.

Click the image below to see the full-size map.

Map displaying routes taken from slave fortresses to the New World.



The Guardian“Black History Month: the best 2020 exhibitions across the US”
ArtsATL | At the High Museum, coffin maker Paa Joe will share sculptures to recall the enslaved”
Atlanta Journal Constitution | “High Museum show examines Africa’s slave trade castles”
WABE, City Lights | “High Museum’s ‘Gates Of No Return’ Features Craftsman Paa Joe”
Forbes | “Starting Blocks For Transatlantic Slave Trade Explored By Artist Paa Joe At High Museum Of Art”
Apollo Magazine | “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return”
Burnaway | “Proverb Boxes: Paa Joe at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta”

Organization and Support

This exhibition is organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

This exhibition is made possible by

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor

Delta logo.
Invesco logo.

Exhibition Series Sponsors

Northside Hospital logo.

Warner Media logo.

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
wish Foundation logo.

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporter
Anne Cox Chambers Foundation

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters
Tom and Susan Wardell
Rod Westmoreland

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
W. Daniel Ebersole and Sarah Eby-Ebersole
Peggy Foreman
Robin and Hilton Howell
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust

Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.