Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana

The Ghanaian coffin artist Paa Joe is featured in issue #28 of Apartamento magazine, with archive photos by the Swiss anthropologist Regula Tschumi. Click here to get your copy!


An introduction to figurative coffins

In 1999 I spent a week in Accra, the capital of Ghana, to see an exhibition of contemporary African art from West and South Africa. While there, I also visited the workshops of several coffin artists and came across their figurative coffins for the first time. Creating these coffins is a highly specialised profession for which apprentices are trained for many years and, if successful, will have customers travelling far and wide to commission a coffin made in their favourite workshop. I was fascinated.

Back home in Switzerland, I started to look for catalogues or articles that might tell me more about these artefacts. Much had been written about them, but it soon became apparent that most authors had drawn on the same source: an illustrated volume by the photojournalist Thierry Secretan, Il fait sombre, va-t’en: Cercueils au Ghana, from 1994, where the coffins were generally viewed in the same terms as Western art. The carpenter Kane Kwei from Teshie was believed to have invented the figurative coffins of the Ga—the people of the south-east coast of Ghana—around 1950. There were no scholarly works or empirical studies that seriously examined their origin, function, and social context from an emic perspective, and that aroused my curiosity.

Between 2002 and 2013 I travelled to Accra 19 times and spent a total of 41 months there. From 2002 until 2006 I was only there for a few months while I researched figurative coffins, but from 2007 to 2013 I spent between two and four months in the Greater Accra Region every year as I worked on my dissertation at the University of Basle. My first book, The Buried Treasures of the Ga, dealt mainly with the work of Paa Joe and questions of how the figurative coffins are made and used, while the second, Concealed Art, is my PhD thesis and explores why the Ga began to use figurative coffins and what role the mysterious palanquin played in all this

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
The Buried Treasures of the Ga: Coffin art in Ghana, Regula Tschumi (Edition Till Schaap, 2008). Originally published in German in 2006.

The palanquin and the coffin

I found that the figurative coffins of the Ga weren’t the invention of Kane Kwei or any other artist in the ‘50s but had developed earlier from figurative palanquins—very rarely seen today—used by the Ga chiefs for their initiation ceremonies and other occasions in the first half of the 20th century in Accra. These palanquins corresponded in shape to the family symbol (totem) of the owner, so that everybody could see which family the respective chief belonged to. Despite their common language, the Ga don’t constitute a unified society; there are great differences between the various clans. They’ve always felt a need to distinguish themselves from the surrounding Akan societies, as well as other Ga clans, and family symbols and royal insignia play an important part in this.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Workshop of Eric Kpakpo in La, Greater Accra Region, 2019. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

The figurative coffins developed later, as owners of palanquins died. One of the main findings of my research was that initiations and funeral rituals of Ga dignitaries are complementary: initiates are buried in a similar way to how they were set up in office. This means that any Ga chief using a figurative palanquin at his installation ceremony must be buried in a copy of that palanquin in order to complete the cycle. Here, the figurative coffin acts as a substitute. Though outwardly similar, palanquins and coffins belong to two separate categories of object: as insignia, palanquins are made to last and are conserved by the family after the death of their owner to keep a sense of contact with their ancestor; coffins, as copies, are made for use and are buried with the deceased. As there are no photographs of the big royal funerals in the Ga area it’s hard to say when the figurative coffins were first used, but after finding a newspaper article about a Ga chief who had a lion palanquin around 1927, I suspect that the coffins might have been used around then.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
A ship coffin (c. 1985) by Kudjoe Affutu in 2017. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

On researching

During my first period of research, from 2002 to 2004, I stayed with two different Ghanaian host families in the coastal town of La, near Accra. In 2007 I rented a small apartment in a nearby Ga neighbourhood, and in 2009 I moved to the neighbouring city of Osu, where I rented a small house in the middle of an old, rather rundown Ga residential area. The house had been neglected so I had to restore it with the help of carpenters and artists I know, but the comfort is still very basic. I have no air conditioning and it’s always very hot and humid. I often have no water or electricity and there’s a lot of noise around the house, be it from the loud music of funerals, parties, or churches that like to hold their services outdoors. Sleepless nights are part of my stay, but as an ethnologist it’s important to live among the people, not in one of those clean residential areas of Accra which are mainly reserved for foreigners and white people.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
A chief in the Greater Accra Region being caried in his old fashioned lion palanquin in 2019. The palanquin was made by Paa Joe. ©️ Photo Regula Tschumi.

Long PhD field research was necessary because my investigation progressed very slowly. My questions about figurative palanquins—seemingly the forerunners of the now famous figurative coffin—were hardly ever answered. Most of the time I was told that the Ga had never used such palanquins, or that chiefs were buried in them and they no longer existed. Even the coffin artist Paa Joe said that the Ga had never used any figurative palanquins. So where to start when nobody wants to talk to you? I had no choice but to expand my research topic in a very broad and interdisciplinary manner.

I began to study the Kplelle cult, the traditional religion of the Ga, and the various art forms connected with this religion. I studied the history of the Ga and their relationship with the neighbouring Akan societies, from which they clearly differ in their language and traditions. I searched in Accra’s archives, in old newspapers for reports and photos of festivals in the hope of finding something about the Ga palanquins. Finally somebody invited me to a chief’s palace and, in an abandoned room, showed me an old palanquin that I immediately recognised from a photograph taken in 1957. The palanquin was in the shape of an eagle, with bottles of gin next to it that had been sacrificed. From this moment my research changed again; I understood that the old palanquins were obviously not buried, or at least not all of them, and that I might be able to find more and learn about their history.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
The eagle palanquin of the Teshie mantse in the palace, 2007. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

From then on I tried to find the real palanquins, not photographs. I visited traditional kings, chiefs, and priests all over the Greater Accra Region, trying to find out if they had ever used palanquins or had kept any in their palaces. Little by little I found out where some of them were kept. The next step was to find a way to get permission to see and photograph these old palanquins. In most cases this was a long process because I was a stranger, and to photograph an old palanquin, even to step into their room in the palaces, was delicate and I needed permission from many family members. I attended countless family meetings, answered their questions, and had to be patient, but in most cases I was able to see and photograph the old palanquins in the end. I finished my PhD in 2013, but I still go back to Ghana and spend at least two or three months there every year; I still explore certain funerals, festivals, and rituals and document everything with my camera.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
The chief from Teshie in his eagle palanquin, around 1962. Photo: courtesy family of Ataa Owuo, Tehsie, and Tschumi’s archive.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana

Celebrating life

Since 2002 I’ve attended about 100 funerals. At the beginning it wasn’t easy; I was shy, and the events are always different, so it took time to learn how to prepare myself. In Ghana photographing at funerals—and photography in general—is a male domain. Obviously, I stand out when I photograph at these occasions because I’m a woman holding a camera and because I’m white. I guess people are surprised when they see me at funerals, but Ghanaians are very polite—though I don’t know what people say about me! I’ve never been stopped or disturbed as the mourners normally know who I am and that I have a permit to photograph, and sometimes families are proud when I attend their rituals. When I began photographing funerals, I found it very strange how certain families stage their deceased for the wake keeping. I was also surprised that taking photos and videos of the deceased during funerals is very popular; there are professional cameramen who photograph the mourners with the body and even the people who cry are relaxed when photographed. All this would be quite unthinkable in my society back home, but the Ghanaian attitude to death is completely different from the one I grew up with. Ghanaians focus on life, not death. At funerals they celebrate the good times they had with the deceased; they even call funerals ‘celebrations of life’. At least for the traditional believers, death is not the end but just another transition in life; death is part of an eternal life cycle where the deceased becomes an ancestor and later, he or she will be reborn into the family. It’s taught me that we shouldn’t just mourn our loss at funerals but be more humble and grateful for the precious time we’ve spent with the deceased.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Christian funeral of a driver in 2016, with a coffin by Kudjoe Affutu. © Photo Regula Tschumi.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
The funeral of a traditional priestess buried in a coffin in the shape of a white stool, 2017, made by Kudjoe Affutu. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

Ghanaian funeral culture

Christian and common funerals are very different from those of traditional believers and chiefs. Generally, traditional funerals, especially those of chiefs, last several days and nights and are characterised by many complex rituals, while Christian funerals are short. They follow the rules of their church and figurative coffins may only be used when the church agrees. Traditional funerals mainly use coffins in the shape of family symbols, while Christians and commoners use shapes associated with the deceased’s occupation. Some coffin makers tell journalists and tourists that the coffins represent objects associated with this occupation so the deceased can continue working in the afterworld, but Christians are unlikely to share this view as it goes against their beliefs. In Christian funerals, figurative coffins have no spiritual function. Instead, their appeal is aesthetic, aimed at surprising mourners with strikingly innovative forms: the more unusual and beautiful the coffin, the greater the astonishment and success. As essentially aesthetic objects, Christian figurative coffins do not—and must not—possess forms with a deeper significance. For the most part, they simply find figurative coffins more attractive than the customary box-shaped objects. By contrast, the special appeal of such coffins to the majority of the Ga lies in the fact that they were once the preserve of the initiated elite.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
A rifle coffin, 2006, by Paa Joe. © Photo Regula Tschumi.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Samuel Cudjoe with his coffin in the shape of a lion for a traditional military leader in Nungua, 2017. ©️ Photo Regula Tschumi.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Daniel Mensah, known as Hello, posing with an unfinished airplane coffin in his workshop in Teshie, Greater Accra Region, 2019. © Photo Regula Tschumi.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
A coffin in the shape of a ship by Paa Joe (1947*), 2006. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

In traditionalist Ga funerals of priests and chiefs, the coffin represents the dead person physically and is secretly buried at night. The coffin is also the deceased’s final garb, donated by the family and buried with the corpse as an offering. In the case of secular chiefs, the coffin often fulfils a twin function, standing in for both the dead person and his palanquin. With traditional priests and priestesses it represents only the deceased, and I found that no importance was attached to the dead person’s physical presence in the coffin: at several funerals I witnessed the corpse being buried separately beforehand. In a traditional burial, the coffin is in contact with the soul or the god of the deceased; therefore the body’s physical presence is irrelevant. This means the same acts can be performed on the coffin as on a novice’s body during their initiation.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
During the wake keeping of the late bulldozer driver, the man stands behind his coffin, made by Kudjoe Affutu, 2017. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

On meeting a master

Ataa Oko (1919–2012) was a pioneer of Ghanaian coffin art, creating his first figurative coffins around 1945. Unlike the younger Kane Kwei (1924–1998), who was widely recognised as the inventor of figurative coffins by the Western art world, Ataa Oko had never been in contact with journalists or Western art dealers. I met him in 2002 and learnt about his early coffin work. Coffin artists are usually only trained in carpentry techniques and not in other disciplines, which is why coffin artists tend to leave the painting and decoration of their woodwork to professional sign painters. However, Oko had been a fisherman in his youth and used to paint his fishing canoe, so from around 1950 to 1980 he painted all his figurative coffins himself. When we met, I asked Ataa Oko to draw me some of his figurative coffins, which of course no longer existed. At the age of 83 the old master began to draw on paper; he didn’t know how to, but he learnt fast and developed a unique and impressive body of work over the following years. Up until Oko died in 2012, I brought him colours and paper from Switzerland, bought his drawings, and let him explain his sketches, providing insight into Ghanaian culture and his spiritual world. These drawings are now exhibited in museums and galleries and published in my third book, Ataa Oko Addo, an illustrated volume with various essays and 10 years of my diary entries on the artist’s work.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Ataa Oko working on a coffin in the shape of a hen, 2006. © Photo Regula Tschumi.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Ataa Oko drawing in 2011. © Photo Regula Tschumi.
Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Ataa Oko painting a rooster coffin in 2009. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

Contemporary Ghanaian artists

If you look at old photos of the early figurative coffins created by Ataa Oko or later by Kane Kwei, it’s obvious how much the coffins have changed since then. Contemporary coffin artists have steadily improved their work techniques and developed the art form much further. Today, apart from the workshop of Paa Joe, well known in the Western art world, there are several other well-established and new coffin workshops and some excellent young masters working with their apprentices in and outside the Greater Accra Region who have become very popular in Ghana.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Samuel Cudjoe showing his leopard coffin for a chief priest in his workshop in Nungua, 2017. © Photo Regula Tschumi.

In my opinion the most innovative coffin artists are the masters Kudjoe Affutu, who has a big studio in Awutu in the Central Region; Eric Kpakpo in La near Accra, who has an excellent reputation; the more senior Daniel Mensah in Teshie; and Samuel Cudjoe, who recently opened his workshop in Nungua. All of these artists keep surprising me with their creations. All of them train several apprentices and a few of those have already opened their own spaces, so there are many workshops and great competition among them now.

Paa Joe’s workshop is now managed by his son Jacob, who works with his father’s former master Ben Amartey. If there’s a lot of work, Jacob calls some of Paa Joe’s former masters, like Eric Kpakpo or Samuel Cudjoe, for help. The well-known painter from Teshie Daniel A. Jasper also works there. This workshop no longer creates coffins for funerals, and instead sells them to the Western art market. Ghanaians who use figurative coffins don’t see them as works of art like the West—although beautiful coffins are certainly highly valued at funerals—and the artist’s name doesn’t matter. At least I’ve never heard the mourners discuss who made the coffin.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
Paa Joe with his masters and apprentices in his former workshop in Nungua, 2004. ©️ Photo Regula Tschumi.

There’s a growing art scene in Ghana as well; several new exhibition spaces have opened in recent years, and the KNUST art academy has produced some very good artists and various great exhibitions in both Accra and Kumasi. In Accra there are also new art spaces like the Nubuke Foundation, Artists Alliance Gallery, and Gallery 1957. Ibrahim Mahama has just built his own museum in Tamale, where he gives aspiring artists from the north an opportunity to hold workshops and exhibitions; the young coffin artist Kudjoe Affutu has established a great art space in the Central Region; and for several years the Chale Wote festival, an annual street and graffiti art event in Accra, has attracted a local and international audience, with many young artists getting the opportunity to exhibit their work.

Apartamento Magazine - Buried Treasures: Coffin Art in Ghana
The workshop of Kudjoe Affutu in Awutu, Central Region, 2020. © Photo Kudjoe Affutu.
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