make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend

make your fridays matter

‘Celestial City’ by Paa Joe is a whimsical ode to life, death and New York City
Paa Joe’s Celestial City: Where Ghanaian craftsmanship meets New York’s spirit
Image: Brian Ferry

‘Celestial City’ by Paa Joe is a whimsical ode to life, death and New York City

From Accra to NYC, delve into Ghanaian artist Paa Joe’s 'Celestial City', where traditions and innovation merge to create vibrant sculptural narratives of the Big Apple.

by Aarthi Mohan
Published on : Mar 29, 2024

Welcome to the vibrant world of Superhouse Gallery’s latest exhibition, situated in the heart of New York. Here, the vivacity of the city intertwines with the timeless craftsmanship of Ghana. Amidst New York City’s bustling streets, artist Paa Joe proudly presents Celestial City, a captivating collection of sculptures paying tribute to the Big Apple in all its splendour. On view from March 13 to April 27, 2024, this art exhibition marks the grand opening of the gallery’s new location at 120 Walker Street, New York. From iconic landmarks to everyday objects, each sculpture shares a narrative rich in culture, identity and the universal language of art.

Joe’s artistic odyssey spans six decades and is rooted in the rich cultural heritage of Ghanaian beliefs surrounding life and death. As a member of the Ga community, he draws inspiration from the traditions of Abeduu Adeka, or proverb boxes, transforming carved wooden coffins into vibrant expressions of identity and commemoration. Over the past 15 years, the artist has seamlessly integrated folk craft tradition into Pop art, creating idiosyncratic renditions of quotidian objects and earning global acclaim for his innovative approach to the art form.

In his debut solo exhibition at Superhouse, the Ghanaian artist pays homage to the city itself, crafting a poignant portrait of the Big Apple through emblematic objects from its five boroughs. From a larger-than-life Heinz ketchup bottle to a nostalgic yellow taxi cab, each piece is a testament to the city’s dynamic spirit and cultural diversity. Through meticulous attention to detail and masterful craftsmanship, the artist invites viewers to explore the intersection of tradition and innovation in the urban landscape.

At first glance one might wonder, what in the world does a coffin maker from Ghana have to do with iconic landmarks of New York City? But Joe isn’t your typical artist. He is a master of turning tradition on its head and infusing it with a generous amount of humour and whimsy. So, when tasked with honouring the city, he did not settle for the predictable skyline painting or just another Empire State Building replica. Instead, he fashioned monumental coffins shaped like symbols of NYC, each brimming with character and charm.

Rather than navigating the bustling streets of the concrete jungle, Joe finds inspiration from a distance. How does someone with no firsthand experience of NYC capture its essence? It is simple. The artist taps into the universal language of humanity. Whether you are savouring a cup of coffee in Brooklyn Café or strolling through a neighbourhood park, a human connection is woven into the fabric of a New York experience. This shared humanity is what the sculpture artist translates into his works.

At the core of his artistic vision lies a deep appreciation for the beauty found in ordinary, everyday objects. From a humble bagel to the iconic yellow taxi cab, Joe’s sculptures elevate the mundane into the extraordinary, offering viewers a fresh perspective around them. Celebrating the city’s symbols and icons, he underscores art’s role in shaping our perceptions of the world around us.

Delving into the intricate details of each sculpture part of the art exhibition reveals layers of meaning and symbolism. Let’s take a closer look at some of his whimsical creations. First, there is the Heinz ketchup bottle coffin, a playful tribute to the beloved condiment found in diners across the city. Then, we have the yellow taxi cab coffin, evoking nostalgia for a bygone era when hailing cabs was an art form. But the artist’s creativity knows no bounds. He goes further, capturing the essence of New York’s diverse landscape with scaled-down replicas of iconic symbols such as the New York Times and the Statue of Liberty.

On view in Celestial City, replicas of Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Guggenheim Museum. and an Hermes Birkin handbag represents the prominent art and fashion. industries. In recognition of the city’s history of welcoming migrants, the exhibition also features versions of a bagel with a schmear, a hotdog and takeout pizza boxes. But it’s not all glitz and glamour in the Ghanaian artist’s world. He is not afraid to shine a light on the city’s less savoury aspects, with sculptures depicting overflowing trash cans and cheeky subway rats.

Beneath the surface of levity and whimsy lies a rich tapestry of tradition. Within Ga culture, funerary rites hold deep significance, serving as a means for the departed to transition to the afterlife and for the living to honour their life and profession. In the early 1950’s, the artist’s uncle, Kane Kwei, blazed a trail crafting the first figurative coffin; a cocoa pod initially designed as a ceremonial palanquin for a chief. However, when the chief passed away during its construction, the cocoa pod was repurposed into its final resting place. This legacy of blending art with tradition has deeply influenced Joe’s approach to his craft. As the innovative art form gained popularity, Kane Kwei expanded his repertoire, crafting personalised commissions resembling both living and inanimate objects. These bespoke coffins served as symbolic representations of the deceased individual’s identity, with examples such as an onion for a farmer, an eagle for a community leader etc. Under his uncle’s tutelage, Joe apprenticed from 1960 until 1972, when he ventured out to establish his studio.

Joe’s journey as an artist transcends geographical boundaries, serving as a testament to the universal language of creativity. Through his sculptures, adorned with traditional Ghanaian textile patterns like the vibrant Kente, he offers a window into the intricate layers of cultural identity and heritage. His work prompts reflections on the dynamic interplay between the past and the present in our increasingly interconnected world.

This sculpture artist’s works serve as catalysts for dialogue and reflection; through his playful reinterpretations of iconic imagery, he challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions, inviting viewers to consider the broader social-political implications of their biases and assumptions. By creating space for meaningful conversations, he fosters a deeper understanding of the complexities of cultural identity and expression.

Superhouse Gallery’s ambitious programmes for the year kick off with the captivating exhibition Paa Joe: Celestial City, setting the stage for a series of compelling presentations. From established figures like Sean Gersley to revered furniture makers Tom Loeser and Wendy Maruyama, and emerging talent like fibre artist Maris Van Vlack, the art gallery promises a diverse and dynamic lineup. Under the stewardship of founder and director Stephen Markos, this art and furniture design gallery is committed to showcasing diverse global perspectives, with a roster spanning Africa, the Americas, and Europe, the gallery’s programming reflects a deep appreciation for design and art history.

Initiatives such as the Celestial City exhibition underscores the gallery’s position at the forefront of contemporary design. By providing a platform for patrons to immerse themselves in the transformative power of creativity, the gallery remains steadfast in its mission to foster dialogue and connection through art.

At its core, Paa Joe: Celestial City is a celebration of life’s rich tapestry, a whimsical journey through the streets of New York City and beyond. In a world where boundaries blur and cultures intersect, this artist’s work serves as a beacon of unity, inspiring viewers to embrace diversity and cherish the shared human experience. So why not step into his world and let your imagination run wild? After all, in Joe’s universe, anything is possible; even a Heinz ketchup bottle coffin.

Paa Joe: Celestial City is on view at Superhouse in New York from March 13 - April 27, 2024

What do you think?

Comments Added Successfully!