This Friday evening I went to the American Folk Art Museum to visit the Paa Joe exhibit entitled Gates of No Return. Walking into the exhibit I had a vague understanding of Paa Joe as a coffin maker and knew that the exhibit was about the six million Africans sold into slavery and sent to the Americas through “The Gates of No Return.” When I arrived at the museum I was surprised to see a rather larger audience sitting in the main gallery listening to African folk music. Apparently, on Friday evening the museum hosts “Free Music Fridays.” A little hesitant at first, I sat in the audience to hear a few songs before making my way to the Paa Joe exhibit. Wow, I am glad that I stayed to listen. The songs that I heard acted as a wonderful preface to the Paa Joe show. Before one of the songs, the singer noted that the following song was one she sang at her fathers funeral. She went on to talk about African funerals. She noted that traditionally Africans wear white to funerals, not black and funerals are viewed as joyous celebrations of a life, rather than a somber event.
At intermission I made my way into the exhibit. The song and stories I heard before created a wonderful story line for my visit. The figurative coffins were surprisingly large and very impressive. From a story telling point of view, it was interesting how the meaning behind these artworks could not really be understood without reading the descriptions on the walls. With this in mind, I began to observe others in the space. I saw people enter the space amazed by these large structures but not really understanding what they were. Once they read the descriptions on the walls I noticed people struggling to define the artwork. Some said they were coffins. Others said that they were figurative coffins. One man said “it is like a gravestone and a coffin in one.” The struggle to rectify what you read with what you see in this exhibit I found very fascinating.