More Than Meets The Eye

Among the Ga people of Ghana, there’s more to a coffin and the rituals of death than meets the western eye. The cultural significance is highly emotional and complex.

Figurative coffins more popularly known as “fantasy coffins” are becoming more widely known as western circles of academics, museums, collectors, and popular media catch wind of the intriguing cultural practice.

A quick scan of recent news articles reveals a focus on the ways these coffins and artists “put the fun in funeral,” “celebrate death in style,” or “spruce up the pine box.”

The Ga people used to refer to the coffins as abebuu adekai, which roughly translates as “receptacles of proverbs” or “proverbial coffins.” Put simply, coffins that are imbued with some sort of meaning.

The practice of making and using figurative coffins arose from changing colonial and postcolonial policies towards the dead in Ghana—they facilitated (and still do) very public statements about familial identity, ancestral power and status in increasingly competitive environments.

However, within “fantasy coffins” there lies imagination, creativity and personalization coffins, the forms that they take and the people that make them.  Museums and collectors now form a large part of the market for these ”fantasy works” but the artists remain true to the past.

Paa Joe is one of the most widely known and respected figurative coffin artists, along with the group of artisans in Ghana he collaborates with. The artists of Paa Joe Coffin Works work primarily from photographs, and rarely sketch out their designs. They rely upon intimate knowledge of materials, technical skill and many years of apprenticing.

The creation of coffins begins with the artists and the people that commission them. Once a shape has been decided upon, either by the deceased’s family, the artist themselves, or a collector, the artists begin to create.
Imagination becomes an integral skill for the coffin maker as they consider how to materialize elaborate forms through simple wooden planks, nails, putty and paint.

Paa Joe and his collaborators consider themselves artists. In the documentary Paa Joe and the Lion (2016) that documents their work, Paa Joe states “I can create an image of you out of wood so good that you will greet it in the morning. So yes, I see myself as an artist.”

He and his colleagues, together with the artists in other well-known coffin workshops in Ghana, are architects of fantasy who carry on the tradition of abebuu adekai while popularizing coffins on a global scale.

Acknowledgement: Kristin Otto, M&G and
Top image courtesy of African
Home page image of Daniel Anum Jasper painting a lion palanquin at Paa Joe Coffin Works, Accra, Ghana, courtesy of Kristin Otto
Bottom image courtesy of Paa Joe Coffin Works 


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