Tonight sees the opening of a very special exhibition of sculpted coffins by the Ghanian artist Paa Joe at the Jack Bell Gallery. The wood-carved and painted caskets are all at once contemporary, ritualistic and traditional pieces of West African art. They are attestations of life for the body they bear – ambition, personality or trade are all hewn by the hands and imagination of Paa Joe. By western standards they appear kitsch but the exhibits tell important stories of tribal burial rituals and appear as if full of joy. We spoke to the Jack of Jack Bell Gallery to find out more about him and Paa Joe…
Hello Jack, can you tell us briefly about how you came to have a space all of your own?
I graduated from the MA program at Courtauld Institute of Art before moving to the Timothy Taylor Gallery for three years. In february 2010 I teamed up with a handful of other young people working for West End dealers. We got hold of a five story building in Victoria and carved it up between us. We all share a focus in contemporary art but with different angles.
Is there a particular nature to the artists and art that you exhibit?
I had always been interested in contemporary African art – I liked the stable of artists nurtured by André Magnin, a French curator and dealer. I was excited by the collection of contemporary African art put together by Pigozzi. I had followed these artists since I was given a catalogue to the seminal 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at Pompidou in Paris. The show tried to counter the trend the artworld was taking whereby 100% of exhibitions ignored 80% of the world. It was truly groundbreaking in its global perspective.
Since February, the shows I’ve been working on have encompassed new art from Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Haiti, Benin, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Who is Paa Joe? Where did you come across him and how did you go about bringing the work to your gallery?
The current show is a solo selling exhibition of sculpted coffins by the Ghanaian artist Paa Joe. Paa Joe lives and works just outside the capital Accra. Since the sixties, he has been creating custom made coffins that blur the line between art and craft. His coffins reflect the ambition or the trade of the person for whom they were made. They are incredibly upbeat – not dead things but rather manifestations of and affirmations of life.
I first became aware of this practice through the catalogue to the 1989 Pompidou exhibition, entitled Magiciens de la Terre. I loved the way the works were wholly African and functioned as contemporary embodiments of traditional tribal burial rituals and art practice. In contemporary Western art practice they recalled Jeff Koons. The coffins are incredibly kitsch. Paa Joe, like Koons, plays with scale and with a work like the Jet, with material and commercial ostentation.
Paa Joe I became aware of through two pieces currently on permanent display at the British Museum. I went over to Ghana to meet with several coffin artists – To me, Paa Joe’s work stood out head and shoulders above the rest. We spent a couple of weeks meeting and discussing what sort of work he was producing for local funeral ceremonies at the time. Through the exhibition I intended to show the scope of his practice. The four works on display are all iconic symbols of local life. The golden African eagle, fish, Air Ghana jet, and Cocoa pod are testament to the vibrancy of West African culture.
Paa Joe was born in the Akwapim hills north-east of Accra in 1945. The foremost sculpted coffin maker of his generation, Paa Joe apprenticed with Kane Kwei – who is credited with beginning the 20th century tradition of figurative coffins. Paa Joe’s work is held in museum collections around the world including the British Museum in London. Two of the works from this exhibition pre-sold to museums.