What struck me first on visiting Paa Joe’s “Gates of No Return” at the American Folk Art Museum was just how vibrant and bright each of the pieces was – in stark contrast to the horrible histories they represented. If I hadn’t known the history of the sites and the people that passed through them, I would have spoken of the whimsy with which they were at times represented. One of them in particular was colored in brightly colored blobs, which I assumed was a somewhat fanciful recreation of the rocks from which it was constructed.
In fact, many of Paa Joe’s coffins – some of which are displayed in videos around the exhibit – are rendered fancifully and without a strict adherence to realistic proportions or coloring. My initial reaction was to chalk that up as a symptom of its ‘folk art’ status and Paa Joe’s lack of formal training, but a. Paa Joe was in fact a 12-year apprentice, b. this blanket statement on aesthetic presumes a lack of intentionality by the artist, and c. the “Gates of No Return” pieces are – in contrast to many of his coffins – very accurately proportioned. On further consideration, there seems to be a recognition of their purpose built into the aesthetic of these coffins.
When an artist sells or donates their work, they lose the physical piece but retain some ties to it – the intention or inspiration is still a part of them. In the case of a coffin however – when the work of art becomes a vessel for another person’s physical form (and a family’s memory and grief) – I can’t help but wonder if the artwork must be given over entirely. And in the case of “Gates of No Return” these pieces must have been given away to the nameless dead of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the lives and families forever upended in the places depicted.