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.