Ga culture, in south-east Ghana, has a brilliant way of remembering the lives of those they’ve lost.
Coffins in all kinds of shapes. Lions. Snakes. Chilli peppers. Aeroplanes. Coca cola bottles. For the Ga people, these stylish, personalised coffins are a rite of passage for anyone who dies in the local community.
Ga, or fantasy coffins, are known as abebuu adekai and are the centrepiece of Ghanian funerals where dancers, musicians and funeral criers perform and celebrate the deceased to jama/pidgin english folk singing. During a Ga funeral, coffins travel around the village in a bid to confuse the spirit so it cannot return and haunt its friends and relatives.
This takes on an air of celebration: no death marches and solemn faces are often find during such rituals. Death is seen as an ongoing part of existence and so throwing a celebration such as this is said to appease the spirits, who can still influence the lives of the living.
The coffins are only unveiled on the day of the funeral – before that, they are held and crafted in secrecy after a lengthy and detailed consultation with the deceased’s family. The design, shape and colour of what their coffin should be are all chosen and meant to reflect aspects of the person in life. They are often built within the deceased’s lifetime and are made from the wood of the wawa tree: however examples held in museum collections are made of mahogany for extra durability.
The earliest example was made in 1951 by two carpenters, Seth Kane Quaye and his brother Ajetey after the death of their grandmother. It had been an ambition of hers to fly in a plane but she never had the opportunity as the Accra Kotoka International Airport was was still under construction and she died before she had the chance. So her grandsons dutifilly saw to it, in death anyway, that she got her wish.
Quaye had originally built palanquins – wooden transports used to hold tribal chiefs aloft during festivals. One chief however died before the festivla could happen, and so his palaquin – in the shape of a cocoa pod – was reused as his coffin instead.
The popularity of these bold, colourful coffins enraptured the local community and their popularity meant that an apprentice was needed to keep up with demand. The apprentice, Paa Joe, still to this day carries on this work from his workplace in Teshie and it is he who sculpted the eagle which is now in the stores of the British Museum.
He in turn is supported by Kane Quaye’s grandson Eric Adjetey Anang who has been manufacturing the coffins since the age of 8 and has helped export them as a concept to western and global audiences, with his work featuring in Milan Design Week, the Royal Ontario Museum, and one most popular pieces in 2014, when he built a fish casket and stuffed it with plastic to pass comment on Philadelphia’s waste issues. Another craftsman is Kudjoe Affutu, who trained under Paa Joe and does a lot of work privately and for exhibitions.
3. Western Interest
The coffins first came to the attention of western culture during the exhibition Les Magiciens de le Terre, at the Musee National d’Art Mocerne in Paris in 1989. In 1989, former US president Jimmy Carter visited his workshop and supposedly bought two coffins, and in 1998 Bill Clinton also paid him a visit. Obama tried to find the workshops on a visit to Ghana abut wasn’t able to, so the jury is out on whether he would have bought one for himself.
The demand has actually been in decline since 2008 and so twestern interest has given a much needed boost and as an art from it has garnered the interest of several concept designers and artists.
In 2016 Paa Joe travelled to the U.K. and filmed ‘Paa Joe and the Lion’, wich saw him try to reverse his fortunes after losing his workshop and generate income by creating coffins as artist-in-residence at the National Trust’s Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.
Earlier I mentioned how many of these creations are built within their occupiers lifetimes. One such recipient was writer of the best Simpsons episode and talk show host Conan O’Brien, who met his deathly, fantasty-coffined self for his show in 2019.
I think they’re fantastic. In an age where death has imposed itself on us in a way not seen for decades, I admire those who want to have a playful attitude to death and make light out of something that often evokes feelings of sorrow and anguish. More of this, please.
Bury me in a massive bottle of wine!
References & Further Reading
Paa Joe & the beauty of many nations (The Future Perfect)