In these uncertain times — pockmarked as they are by ongoing police crime, neo-Nazi terrorism, undeniable climate change, and the threat of nuclear war — it’s hard not to think about what lies beyond. I mean this in two senses. Firstly, that this particular moment in American history seems to be laying the groundwork for a very different type of political future than many of us might have imagined, prompting us to collectively think about the legacy we will leave for subsequent generations. And secondly, that each of us is reminded daily of our own physical mortality in the face of these violences, prompting us as individuals to ponder what might come after this earthly life.
The typical summer group show rarely offers much more than a snackable smattering of art showcasing the strengths of a particular gallery’s program, but Jack Shainman Gallery’s The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness, spread across one of its Chelsea spaces and the School in Kinderhook, NY, offers a smorgasbord of spiritualism that effectively hits on both of the above points of existential reckoning.
Drawing from the Ghanaian tradition of abebuu adekai, or fantasy coffins, which celebrate the life of the deceased and usher them into the afterlife with pomp, Accra-based artist Paa Joe is well known for his extravagant funerary caskets, the designs of which range from Porsches to chili peppers. His Slave Castle series was commissioned by the late Jack Shainman gallery co-founder, Claude Simard, in 2004, and their presentation this summer marks their public debut. The works represent the European castles erected along the Gold Coast in the 15th century, which were sites of internment for slaves bound for the New World. These purgatories proved the last memory many Africans had of their homeland; for those who didn’t survive the journey, the castles marked their final moments on this earth.
Reproduced in miniature, these ghastly holding cells lose their edificial power. Painted in flat, rich colors, they are lined with bright, beautiful silks. At this scale and in these shades, they almost seem fun, like playhouses rather than penitentiaries — which is appropriate, as they are meant to celebrate, in the custom of abebuu adekai, the lives that were unsactimoniously lost due to the white, male, hegemonic Western “pursuit of happiness” — sins for which we are still struggling to atone today. The only travesty in their display is that more of them couldn’t be shown together due to their size: Of the 13 that were commissioned, the Chelsea location could only accommodate one, and the School showcased just three.
Instead, these memorial slave castles are presented alongside works ranging from 16th-century European paintings of patrons and saints to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s moody fictional portraits. West African bateba shamanic shrine figurines sit kitty-corner to Beverly Fishman’s subtly neon-backlit geometric wall-mounted sculptures, which are meant to evoke the experience of a drug trip. Devotional Hindu serpent drawings are juxtaposed with Philip Kwame Apagya’s portrait photography shot against drawn backgrounds of contemporary technological apparatuses like office desks laden with phones and computers.
While the Kinderhook location especially could have done with fewer of these pairings (perhaps allowing a few more of Paa Joe’s exceptional coffins to be included), the mashup of works spanning mediums and centuries makes for a worthwhile thought experiment. In the face of systemic violence, lies, threats, and destruction, what and who should we memorialize, and how many have we memorialized who shouldn’t have been? How do we find a higher consciousness — through prayers or prescriptions? And in what should we place our faith as the world shifts around us — the sacred or the profane?
The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (524 W 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 25 and at the School (25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY) through January 6, 2018.