In 2014, the New York gallerist Jack Shainman received an unexpected call from an old acquaintance. On the line was Paa Joe, a Ghanaian craftsman who, as it happened, had received an unusual commission from Shainman’s late business partner, Claude Simard, 10 years earlier.
“When are you picking up your coffins?” Joe asked. Shainman’s response: “Oh shit.” He then began considering how exactly to transport 11 coffins fashioned after 15th-century castles from Africa to New York.
Those pieces are now on view in “The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness,” a two-part show running concurrently at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea and the School, a former elementary school in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Kinderhook that Shainman transformed into a 30,000-square-foot exhibition space in 2014. (The show in the city runs through August 25, and the upstate one continues into January.)
Drawing on the traditional Ghanaian custom known as abebuu adekai, Joe’s hollow wooden structures might be seen as vessels tasked with ferrying the dead in the afterlife. Traditionally reserved for the realm of chiefs and priests, so-called “fantasy coffins” of the kind Joe designs are usually made to resemble a favored object from the life of the deceased, like a Mercedes-Benz or a Nike sneaker. The coffins that came to New York were instead fashioned to evoke castles along Ghana’s Gold Coast that were long ago used as holding pens for slaves before they were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in brutal conditions.