Ideas, beliefs and considerations behind death vary from community to community, across the world. The general belief is that while the dead is considered to be “gone” in the West, the dead live on in Africa, and other non-Western areas. While life is, generally, seen as linear in the Western world view, we have a cyclical consideration of life and death in Africa and believe that the dead continue their activities when they transition to the other world. In Yoruba mythology, and several African cultures, the dead is buried with their servants and such a practice is considered normal. In Ghana, this practice is now manifested in a slightly different and very artistic and creative way. The fantasy coffin makers showcase that continuity between life and death through exquisite motifs that adorn the coffins, representing the professions and interests of the deceased. The art started in the Ga community along the coast in Accra, Ghana. That accounts for the array of coffins displayed on the coast where the Ga community reside.
Aric Anang, a coffin maker, traces the practice to the kings’ palanquins in history, with their shapes and designs: spider for some, cocoa for others and so on. Over time, the ordinary citizen has gained access to that luxury and people come to him with the intention of immortalizing or celebrating their deceased relatives. The family members describe the occupation or favourite pastime of the dead relative and ask the artist to make a coffin that symbolizes them. The intention is to ensure that the “departed one” who had simply transitioned into that other realm will continue their activities there. So, artists, like Aric and his trainees, make coffins which have the following shapes: a vegetable like pepper when the dead was a farmer; the shape, colours and inscriptions of a Ghana Airways aircraft when the deceased was a pilot; guns for soldiers or hunters; a canoe or fish for fisherfolks; light bulbs for electricians and a little bit of humour creeps into reality when the coffin has the shape of cigarette pack, a phallus, or wee joint. These are said to reflect, respectively, the deceased who was a heavy smoker or a “womanizer” and the joint would be made for a wee smoker. So, the motif conveys the person’s identity, celebrates their life and ensures the continuity of life in the other world.
In most cases, the coffin is shown to the family members on a Thursday in communities like Teshie (in Accra), on Friday the day on which the wake is kept, the body is taken from the mortuary and displayed in the coffin and on Saturday the burial takes place. In certain cases, with the fast pace of life, the bereaved family gets to see the coffin only on Saturday and scuffles ensue when the family is not satisfied with the design but such arguments are quickly settled.
The coffin makers are despised by some members of the community. They are often branded as “people who call death” or “merchants of death” so that they can make good business. Therefore, when artists try to display their beautiful artworks in popular galleries, and other spaces where they can be seen, they encounter some hostility. Many believe that coffin makers perform libations so that more people die and their sale of coffins booms. A coffin maker explains how he was forced to withdraw his art work from popular spots in Accra around the Military Hospital and the airport area where he had displayed his work. To his surprise, the city authorities forced him to take the coffins away because he was thought to be bringing death into the community. The coffin maker or carpenter is often called “gunyoadeka” which means “coffin” in Ga (the community along the coast in Accra). Fortunately, institutions like Alliance Française and the Goethe Institute encourage the display of such works of arts and several Ghanaians patronize such expositions and thus learn about this combination of art and the celebration of life.
This is how the artists work. Coffins are made from fresh wood, since that is more affordable to the artists, and numerous pieces of wood are joined in an artistic manner. In addition, there might be between three and five coats of “sanding and painting” to remove traces of joints to enhance the aesthetics. Satin and foam are displayed inside the coffin in order to absorb liquid, since the body is retrieved from the mortuary and laid inside the coffin, based on the requirements of the various ceremonies which themselves reflect the customs of the areas. The artists also learn from the communities they visit during their trips and exhibitions. For example, while they use gasoline (as a solvent) oil-based (enamel) paint in Ghana, while in Europe and America they picked up the habit of using the acrylic, which is less harmful to human health.
These artists do not limit their work to Accra, they take it to other cities like Kumasi, in Ghana and to Europe and the USA (as mentioned above) and in the West they are referred to as ‘artists’ not ‘coffin makers or carpenters’, as one of them jokingly points out, “that broadens the minds of their audience or viewers, in the West. In Kumasi, the art takes a different form. Instead of making coffins after orders have been placed by customers or relatives of the deceased, the artists are more interested in listening to the stories of people’s lives. On that basis, coffins are made to celebrate such lives and, sometimes, artworks are hatched to celebrate events, and such artworks are displayed in shops or galleries. Unlike Teshie (Accra) where the artist is limited in the choices and compelled to stick to the demands of the customers, in Kumasi the artist has more freedom and adds more fun and imagination to their work.
Fantasy coffins are not always made to celebrate life, they may also convey a message. The artist can make a coffin in the form of a gun, which is broken into two in the presence of people, as a way of saying that it is time to put an end to gun violence. Anang produced such a work during his residency in UW-Madison, in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and it was a success, a real way of putting the life of the community at the centre of his art. Similarly, artists show how eco-conscious they are when they craft coffins in the shape of fireflies or honeybees. The artists change their stories and do not remain fixed in time and space; they broaden the function and symbolism of the coffin. This ingenuity deserves more attention.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana