The African Art of Fantasy Caskets
It is common for MIR Appraisal Services to have the opportunity to inspect works from famed modern artists like Chagall, Dalí, and even Picasso. However, as a fine art and personal property appraisal business, we also get the opportunity to see just how far the term of "art" extends into our client’s personal collections. This week, MIR has been researching the African art of fantasy coffins. Our findings also brought to light a common question as to whether or not there is considerable difference between fine art and craft. Some view art as a more conceptual practice and craftsmanship as a discipline, while others see the two as interchangeable. Regardless of individual stances on this dichotomy, it is undeniable that throughout history there have been artists that have seamlessly fused the two concepts together in their practice. Seth Kane Kwei, the original fantasy casket artist of Accra, Ghana, is a perfect example of that fusion.
The art of “proverb coffins” or abebuu adekai, is in the challenge of creating a casket that tells a story of the individual as they begin their journey into the afterlife. Inspired by Ancient Egyptian burial practices, this African art form, which started in the Ga community of Ghana in West Africa, is meant to safely transport the deceased and ceremoniously assist in their path to the afterlife. Burial rituals and funeral ceremonies can take anywhere from three to five days to complete, and can sometimes take a month to fully organize. Bodies are held at morgues until a time where the funeral details are fully established. These caskets, depending on request by those who commission them, can take months to create.
This final send off for the Ga community's loved ones is not only to honor them, but is also viewed as an opportunity for establishment of good fortune in the afterlife for both the deceased and the remaining living family members. Death, particularly of an elder, is a time to be celebrated according to West African custom. It is a recognition of a life fully lived, but also one that is just beginning in a new spiritual sense. Once the body is placed inside of the decorative coffin, it is paraded throughout the village in hopes of confusing the spirit of the departed, and ensuring that it doesn’t find its way back home. Death is not mourned so much as it is honored because of the belief that the spirit of the individual does not die with them, but will in fact continue onwards to a new journey in the afterlife.
Seth Kane Kwei and his workshop was the first fantasy coffin production business established in the 1950s. Throughout his career, he had a number of apprentices who have been able to successfully keep up with his legacy, as well as the fantasy coffin industry since his passing in 1992. As one of the most notable cultural exports of Ghana, the rest of the world is becoming more and more aware of the practice, and is even going so far as to put in their own requests for collection.The prices for these pieces can range anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000 depending on the design.The National Gallery of Funeral History located in Houston, Texas has the largest collection of fantasy coffins, particularly by artist Seth Kane Kwei, outside of Ghana.
While many choose to have their coffins represent their professional presence, an example being a fisherman choosing to be buried inside of a giant fish, many also seek to have their life, responsibilities, and dreams be the encapsulating form they are sent off inside of. Seth Kane Kwei chose to celebrate his grandmother’s fascination with airplanes by making her casket in the shape of one. Heads of households have chosen to be allegorically sent off in lion-shaped caskets, while others have simply decided to be buried inside their favorite beverage bottle.
The carpentry behind these coffins are often seen as the meeting point of art and craft. The success that accompanies this skillset weighs heavily when making the decision to enter into this professional field. Many of the specialist carpenters opted out of university in order to pursue this career. While the artisans that create these pieces are formally trained in the craft, there is a creativity present in the design process that captures the spirit of an individual, that ultimately pushes it into an art form. Culturally, the Ga community views death as a time to celebrate a loved one’s life and their journey into the next one. The beauty of that concept paired with a physical representation of a loved one's life is art inspired by the human condition.
As the demand for these pieces increases globally, it is also breaking its way into the contemporary art world by making more conceptual pieces about modern day issues. Another prominent casket artist from Ghana, Eric Adjetey Anang, aside from being the grandson and apprentice of Seth Kane Kwei, is using this art form to raise awareness to the social issues that have affected him. In 2014, Anang built a fish shaped coffin and filled it with plastic as a commentary on environmental pollution. During a visit as an artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Anang built a coffin in the shape of a gun to raise awareness on gun violence.
While the conversations revolving around the newer casket designs are more reflective of the ideas of the modern art world, it is in understanding the roots and history of this craft that truly give it its value. These artists are bringing light to the Ga culture through their craftsmanship, but are also showing how the concepts behind these pieces are deserving of art status.
Bignell, Paul. “Fantasy Coffins: Meet the Man Who Puts the 'Fun' into Funereal.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 7 May 2013, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/fantasy-coffins-meet-the-man-who-puts-the-fun-into-funereal-8606219.html#gallery.
Calabrese, Angelica. “Sprucing Up the Pine Box: Inside Ghana's Novelty Coffin Industry.” Atlas Obscura, 9 Dec. 2015, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ghana-novelty-coffins.
“Coffin.” British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1670672&partId=1.
“The Fabulous Coffins of Ghana.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Dec. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/10/14/africa/gallery/ghana-coffins-mpa/index.html.
Gallagher, Paul. “Paa Joe’s Elaborate Hand-Carved Ghanaian Coffins.”DangerousMinds, 4 Aug. 2014, dangerousminds.net/comments/paa_joes_elaborate_hand-carved_ghanaian_coffins.
Jansen, Charlotte. “How Ghana's Top Fantasy Coffin Artist Has Put the Fun in Funeral.”The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Nov. 2016, www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/24/paa-joe-ghana-fantasy-coffin-artist-casket-funeral.
Kiger , Patrick J. “Ancient Egyptian Tombs and Death Rituals.” National Geographic Channel, National Geographic , 25 Feb. 2016, channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-story-of-god-with-morgan-freeman/articles/ancient-egyptian-tombs-and-death-rituals/.
“A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins from Ghana.” National Museum of Funeral History | The High Art of Fantasy Coffins from Ghana, West Africa at NMFH, NMFH, nmfh.org/exhibits/permanent-exhibits/a-life-well-lived-fantasy-coffins-from-ghana.
Ochieng, Akinyi. “The Fantasy Coffins of Ghana.” Roads & Kingdoms, 23 Jan. 2016, roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/the-fantasy-coffins-of-ghana/.
Ochieng, Akinyi. “The Fantastical Pop-Art Coffins of Ghana.” Slate Magazine, 22 Jan. 2016, www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/roads/2016/01/inside_the_workshop_that_produces_ghana_s_fanstastical_pop_art_coffins.html.