Scores of African Americans made a pilgrimage to Ghana last year to mark the 400th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade that brought Africans to these shores.
By some reports, the Ghanaian government expected a surge of 500,000 tourists coming to the nation for what the government was promoting as “The Year of Return.” The moniker was a play on “the door of no return,” the exit of a castle along the Ghanaian coast. The castle, and several like it along the coasts of Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Senegal, were places of misery and horror for the 12.5 million Africans held in them before they were sold off to the Americas and the Caribbean. During the slave trade at least 300,000 captives were sent directly to what is now the United States.
The castles along Ghana’s coastline proved a draw for African Americans last year. Yet, while some long to see the castles in person, most never will. Which is why the latest exhibit at the High Museum of Art, “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return,” has special resonance. In this show, which runs from Feb. 29 through May 31, Ghanaian artist Joseph “Paa Joe” Ashong has recreated seven of the castles.
From coffins to castles
By trade, Paa Joe, which he goes by professionally, is a fantasy coffin maker who has been heralded by the art world as one of the most important such artists of his generation. In his 70s this year, Paa Joe works with a team of artisans in Ghana’s capital Accra, creating coffins that are both glorious and practical works of folk art. The coffins represent a person’s profession in life. So, if someone was a fisherman, his coffin is built to look like a giant shark or perhaps octopus. If the deceased was a seamstress or tailor, maybe their coffin is built and painted to resemble a sewing machine or spool of thread. The coffins are funereal works of whimsy and respect. They are meant to bear actual bodies.
The seven castles in this exhibition are similarly sized. Each is big enough to hold a corpse. Taken out of context the replicas might appear majestic. One, painted in splashes of red, pink, yellow and blue, appears almost toy-like. But for all their outward exuberance, they represent fortresses of sorrow and horror.
“Because they are miniatures, there’s something very playful about them, but when you look longer you’re forced to deal with the traumatic histories they represent,” said Katie Jentleson, curator of folk and self-taught art at the High.
Paa Joe was originally commissioned to make the replicas in the early 2000s by a collector and associate of the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, Jentleson said. Paa Joe then traveled the 100 miles from his shop in Accra to the coast several times to tour the castles. In past interviews he has said he needed to absorb the enormity of the despair and degradation the captives faced in order to render what would be their final points of contact with their home continent. In all, he and his team wound up making 14 castles in 2004 and 2005. The seven that will be on display in the Anne Cox Chambers Wing, were originally shown in 2018 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
This will mark the first time the works have been shown in the Southeast. Most enslaved Africans brought directly to North America arrived through Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston. From there, they were sold and dispersed throughout the North and South.
The remnants of despair
Some contemporary visitors to the so-called “slave castles” along the coastline of Ghana have written about the stench they claim still clings to the walls and floors of the castles’ lower chambers.
Those rooms held Africans captured by rival tribes during skirmishes and wars. Those captives were then sold for profit to Europeans who built transatlantic economies with the captives’ unpaid labor on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. Before the Africans were loaded on ships where each man, woman and child was chained in the hulls for a journey across the Atlantic — that could last weeks or months — they had to survive the castles.
The Portuguese, Dutch, Danes, Swedish and British, commissioned the castles to hold the captives until they were ready for transport. The bowels of the fortresses were prisons with little natural light. That’s where captives slept, ate meager rations, relieved themselves and despaired. This went on virtually unabated for 200 to 300 years in each castle. Not all 12.5 million Africans sold into slavery went through the Ghanaian fortresses, but many did. Which is why, despite the fact that the Ghanaian government has excavated soil from some of the buildings and painted their walls, some visitors have said they can smell remnants of excrement and misery from those held long ago.
Whether that is the case inside the actual castles has been a point of dispute. But for the High’s presentation of the show, Jentleson found other ways to drive home the impact of the slave trade. She worked with Emory University’s “Slave Voyages” project, considered by scholars to be the most comprehensive international database on the slave trade. On a time lapse video, “Voyages” shows the path of every documented slave ship that ever set sail from Africa to its point of landing on the other side of the Atlantic. The video includes the names of ships, the number of Africans who embarked and the number who disembarked at the end of the voyage. The numbers at the end of a journey were always lower than those at the start because many died during in the crossing. Conditions on slave ships were as bad as or worse than those in the castles.
The High will show a version of the Emory video, minus the details of each ship and its cargo, on iPads in the gallery. The museum has added a map that shows 19 sites in Atlanta related to slavery.
Also on display will be a list of hundreds of African names of some who were captured in the slave trade. Their names were recovered by Emory researchers who combed ship manifests, court records and other ancient documents to build the “Voyages” website. David Eltis, the Emory emeritus professor who still leads the “Voyages” project said the High’s exhibition was an unexpected but welcome use of the database.
“People are using it in ways we never imagined possible,” Eltis said.
For those who may never make it to the castles of Africa’s Gold Coast, the exhibition could be a chance to make if not an actual pilgrimage, certainly a symbolic one.
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