Taking It to the Grave: Paa Joe’s Fantasy Coffins

Culturally speaking, we Americans aren’t too keen on the topic of our own burials (or pyres). In Ghana, however, it’s all about going out with intention, ambition, and flair.

Garrison Keillor once observed, “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”

That’s the real bugger about death, isn’t it? We live and work, persevere and prosper, dream and fantasize, only to die a corpse. Spoken about kindly, presumably, in past tense: she was certainly a looker in her youth.

But now, dead as a doornail or a pile of dust, ashes and dental work.

It’s terribly depressing.

A burial tradition out of Ghana, however, is vastly changing our typically western perspective on the whole death thing.

Last year, the Jack Bell Gallery in London debuted a collection of Paa Joe’s fantasy coffins, called abebuu adekai (literally “boxes with proverbs”), to much critical acclaim. Tomorrow, the gallery, which recently moved to a new space in the West End, is opening a new exhibit called Les Fantomes featuring more of Paa Joe’s works.

I connected with Bell over the telephone this week and he had this to say about Joe’s corpus of work.

“They’re amazing pieces of contemporary art reminiscent of Jeff Koons in terms of scale and materials.”

For the purpose of burial, Paa Joe and other coffin makers sculpt out of locally sourced, often reused, white wood (wawa wawa) or emien, an important material in West African carpentry. Those crafted for export, such that Bell displays in his gallery, are sculpted out of harder and more expensive wood like limba or African Mahogany.

Bell explains that the Ghanaian tradition dates back to the presence of American troops and their jet planes during the 1950s. Paa Joe’s mentor, another famous carpenter who was named Kane Kwei, popularized the abebuu adekai after his mother passed away.

“His mother had always dreamed of going on an airplane, but never got to go. He built her one and it caught on among the Ga people [of the Accra region].”

The coffins can be both figurative and literal. A businessman might be buried in a Mercedes Benz, while a photographer would be buried in a Nikon. A hunter could end up in a lion; a chief would glide into the afterlife inside a Golden African Eagle.

Les Fantomes is on at the Jack Bell Gallery through the end of October. In the United States, an abebuu adekai is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

For more on Paa Joe’s process, watch…

Paa Joe ‘Dead Not Buried’ trailer HD from Benjamin Wigley on Vimeo.

K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.