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Reviving the dying art of fantasy coffins

Arts and Culture

Reviving the dying art of fantasy coffins

Ghana’s weird and wonderful coffins have become renowned worldwide but the dedicated artists and craftsmen who make them have not received the acknowledgement due to them in their own country. Now Gallery 1957 in Accra is setting this to rights by showcasing the work of one of the greatest exponents, Paa Joe. Report by Juliet Highet.

It’s an important time to be celebrating Paa Joe’s legacy,” says the gallery’s founder, Marwan Zakhem, “not only to mark his 40th year in this business, along with his birthday, but also to reflect on his legacy in the wider context of Ghana’s contemporary art scene.”

One does not take it anywhere celebrates Paa Joe’s extraordinary work memorialising the lives of others and sending them into their afterlives with style and aplomb.

The title, from the Ga proverb ake yaa heko (“one does not take it anywhere”) refers to the limits of wealth and power, the inability of humans to take their worldly possessions beyond the grave. As with any long journey, it’s better to travel light. A coffin then, as probably the last thing you’ll buy, might as well be fantastic.

The sea has inspired each of Paa Joe’s six coffins, which are ship-like vessels in which to travel beyond this lifetime. Whether Christian, or following any other faith, many in Accra believe that existence continues on after death in much the same way that it does in our current terrestrial incarnation.

Tetteh-Achong, Paa Joe’s son, who has worked with his father for eight years, says: “People celebrate death in Ghana. At a funeral, we have a passion for the person leaving us – there are a lot of people, and a lot of noise.”

Funerals can last up to three days and nights. Prestige for the family accrues with the size, splendour and yes, the extravagance of the funeral, which can cost up to a year’s salary.

Therefore coffins are impressive icons of celebration for the deceased’s life and reflect West African attitudes to funerals and death as not necessarily just occasions of sadness and loss.

Traditionally, custom-made coffin designs were commissioned to celebrate the lives of priests and kings of the coastal Ga and Fante peoples. The creation of fantasy coffins, abebuu adekai, began in the 1950s.

These glorious but ephemeral sarcophagi appear to be an internationally unique form of celebrating life and death – they are destined to disappear, having taken months to make, creating unseen, underground art galleries in Ghana’s cemeteries.

The acknowledged master, the “Godfather of Fantasy Coffins”, as he is known, is of course… Paa Joe, whose real name is Joseph Ashong. He was born in Akwapim, Ghana in 1947. When he was 16, his mother sent him to work as an apprentice with his uncles Ajetey and Seth Kane Kwei in the Ga fishing community of Teshie.

They were the prominent fantasy coffin makers of the 1950s, and Joe continued working with Kwei for 12 years as an apprentice. Then he moved to Elmina boatyard, another fishing area, to learn how to carve canoes, which in Ghana are usually colourfully painted and embellished with cultural symbols. In 1976 he moved to Accra, establishing his own workshop.

Fantasy coffins are commissioned, never ordered from a catalogue. They are designed to represent the life of the person for whom they are made. Paa Joe explains why his work is so popular. “People are buried in Ghana according to their profession whilst alive or what they were addicted to. The photographer is buried in a camera, while a business tycoon is buried in a Mercedes or a Ferrari. A king or family leader is buried in a lion.”

Paa Joe’s first coffin, carved in 1978, was in the shape of a building, designed for a property developer. The variety of forms he has made is endless – a coffin shaped like a bottle of Star Beer, the tipple of choice for generations of West Africans, and a Coca Cola-shaped coffin for a street vendor, are pretty obvious symbols; a Walkman or a Smartphone design may be for younger corpses.

But then there are the more off-the-wall coffins – such as a trainer, a chilli pepper, and a nude woman – or maybe the latter is to be expected. The profession that inspired a camouflage-print cannon is easy to guess, but who commissioned a Chevrolet Stingray convertible with room for two? Joe himself says he’d like his coffin to be in the shape of a hammer.

Global interest

Paa Joe’s coffins have gone global, attracting the international attention of many galleries, museums and collectors in recent years. They were first introduced to Western art aficionados in 1989 in Paris, at a trailblazing exhibition entitled “Les Magiciens de la Terre” at the Centre Pompidou.

Paa Joe’s work was introduced to London by Jack Bell at his gallery, to be followed by shows at such bastions of the UK art world as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert museum. His work also attracted attention at 1:54 in 2015, the annual contemporary pan-African art festival in London.

Eleven coffins came to New York to be exhibited at Jack Shainman’s galleries in Manhattan and Kinderhook. They are melancholy reminders of slavery along Ghana’s coastline – coffins in the shape of castles, which were holding pens for slaves before they were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

Joe’s coffins have attracted celebrity recognition too. The former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan and ex-US president Bill Clinton both visited Paa Joe’s studio, Clinton taking the time to call there during an official state visit in 1998. Another former US president, Jimmy Carter, commissioned two coffins.

The inaugural exhibition of ANO, Accra’s new art space, whose theme was Accra, included Paa’s work, showcasing for the first time in Ghana just how significant a role Joe has played at home. Tetteh-Achong says: “Any time we travel abroad, people in the Western world have a huge respect for our work, but in Ghana they don’t recognise this as art.’

In an interview with Fad magazine, Eric Thorp asked Paa Joe: “You’ve exhibited in galleries and art fairs all over the world. Are your creations considered art in Ghana?” “Never!” replied Paa: “Ghanaians consider them mere coffins.” “Do you consider yourself an artist?” “Yes, I consider myself an artist and the grandfather of the fantasy coffin makers in Ghana.”

Marwan Zakhem adds that: “Despite the commercial and international interest it’s garnered abroad, the fantasy coffin business has, until recently been seen as a skilled trade, rather than an art practice. Indeed it’s still learned by apprenticeship, like other vocational professions.”

Ironically, and sadly, since 2008, Paa Joe’s business has been in decline, because he and his son have been forced to move from their central workshop in Accra to a dusty roadside shack in Pobiman about 15 miles out of the capital, with little passing trade and few visits from tourists. Tetteh-Ashong says that: “In Accra, we would make up to 10 coffins a month. Now it’s about two.”

Yet someone’s making money out of their coffins. In 2014, a Porsche-shaped piece set a record for the sale of fantasy coffins at the auction house Bonhams in London, where it sold for $9,200.

In 2016, Paa and his son were the subject of a documentary directed by the British filmmaker Benjamin Wigley. Paa Joe & the Lion follows the two as they arrive for a one-month residency at Clumber Park in England, where the pair built a lion-shaped coffin, with the hope of gaining enough recognition – and cash – to be able to buy themselves back into the fantasy coffin business in Accra.

Paa was asked how he felt the release of the documentary would affect his career. “It will boost my business to another level!” said Paa. Let’s pray so. NA

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Written by Juliet Highet

Originally trained as a photographer, Juliet Highet lived in East & West Africa as well as India, subsequently also travelling to 52 countries, some many times. In Nigeria she began writing professionally and on her return to UK began editing books and magazines. Now, as a writer and photographer she is widely published on travel, the arts, perfumery and much more. She is the author of FRANKINCENSE: Oman’s Gift to the World, and a specialist in contemporary Arab culture and its heritage.

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