The Jack Bell Gallery in London are currently exhibiting a small selection of sculpted coffins by the Ghanaian artist Paa Joe. The four works on display are all iconic symbols of Ghanaian life:
The golden African eagle, fish, Air Ghana jet, and Cocoa pod are testament to the vibrancy of West African culture and the ability and imagination of the local artists.
These works blur the line between art and craft. Reflecting the ambition or the trade of the person for whom they were made they are not dead things but are instead a manifestation of and indeed an affirmation of life. The works are wholly African and are a contemporary embodiment of traditional tribal burial rituals and art practice. They link back to pre-colonial West African sculpture but also recall the pomp and extravagance of ancient Egyptian royal tombs and perhaps – in contemporary Western art practice they recall Jeff Koons. They too are kitsch, Paa Joe, like Koons, plays with scale and with a work like the Jet, with material and commercial ostentation.
Paa Joe is the foremost coffin-maker of his generation, who was apprenticed by Kane Kwei – the man credited with beginning the 20th century tradition of figurative coffins. Paa Joe’s work is held in museum collections around the world including the British Museum in London. The exhbition Paa Joe: Taking It With You is at the Jack Bell Gallery until 15 January 2011.
This aeroplane coffin, made in 1951, was the first such coffin in Ghana. Made by brothers Kane and Adjetei Kwei, the coffin was their final gift to their 90-year-old grandmother who had never been in a plane but told them she often day-dreamed of flying.
The tradition for fish coffins is believed to have originated in the village Teshi, where fishermen were buried in two canoes bound together in the shape of a fish.
It is common for those in corporate business to be buried in coffins carved to resemble their cars.
No expense is spared in paying for an extravagant coffin, as it is believed a spirit cannot move on until it has received the proper burial rites.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
With thanks to Douglas Steindorff