Coffin art in Ghana

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Ataa Oko with his wife in front of one of his early figural coffins, around 1960

The art of coffins in Ghana has been a regional peculiarity of the coffin design of the Ga-Adangme since the middle of the 20th century , which developed from the figural sedan chairs in which the heads of the Ga were already carried at the beginning of the 20th century. The figurative coffins are made in the form of fruits, animals, status or family symbols, according to the wishes of the deceased themselves or their survivors. The Ga living in the south and the Greater Accra region use these figural coffins for their funeral rituals . Outside the region they are also called “fantasy coffins”, “design coffins” or “fantastic coffins”, and the local names “abebuu adekai” or “okadi adekai” are also used outside of the region.


The use of such coffins is closely related to the religion and the concept of the afterlife of the Ga . The death for them, but does not mean a definitive end life goes after her performance in Beyond similarly continue as on earth. As ancestors, the deceased are more influential than living people and control the fate of their relatives who are still alive. The families try to cheer up the dead man's spirit with the elaborate figural coffins. The social status in the afterlife depends not only on success in life but also on the size of the funeral service and the exclusivity of the coffin.

The coffins are only visible on the day of the funeral, they go to the grave with the dead. The design of the coffin does not serve a decorative purpose, it is rather predetermined by symbols. Figure coffins often relate to the deceased's profession and are intended to help them pursue their earthly work in the hereafter. A sword or chair coffin, on the other hand, is a royal or priestly insignia with a magical-religious function for people with a corresponding status. Such coffins make just as certain animals partly Klan - Totems are, such as the lion, the cock or the crab that pertain only to certain heads of families. Many coffin motifs refer to proverbs that are interpreted differently by the Ga. The figural coffins have been used in the Greater Accra region since 1950, primarily by the rural, traditionally religious population, but increasingly also by Christians, and are now an integral part of the local burial culture.

The main purpose of the figural coffins, called by the Ga okadi adekai or abebuu adekai , are burials in the Greater Accra region . Only a small part of these objects are created for “Western” museums and collectors. There are several studios in the Greater Accra region that produce figural coffins of varying artistic quality. The most famous coffin artist in and outside of Ghana is Paa Joe , the former master carpenter of Kane Kwei, who died in 1992. For many years he ran a studio in Nungua . Since 2008 he has had a new workshop in Pobiman, near Nswam. In addition to Paa Joe, three of his former master carpenters , Daniel Mensah (Hello) in Teshie , Eric Kpakpo in La and Kudjo Affutu in Awutu , Central Region, have their own workshop. Kane Kreis' former atelier in Teshie is now run by Eric Anang .

History of the art form

Figurative litter drawn by Ataa Oko 2009

The figurative coffins were discovered around 1970 by a group of Californians in Kane Kwei's studio in Teshie. In 1972 his coffins were first exhibited as works of art in California . Since the exhibition Les Magiciens de la terre at the Center Pompidou in Paris in 1989, at which figure coffins from Ghana were also exhibited in Europe for the first time, Kane Kwei has been considered the inventor of the figural coffins in the western art world, and this artist and Ghanaian coffin art became worldwide known. In 1994 an illustrated book by Thierry Secretan was published, which contributed significantly to Kane Kwei's fame and to the popularity of his character coffins in the West. Kane Kwei, who described himself as the inventor of the figure coffin in the first interviews with Western journalists, later had to admit that he had taken this idea from someone else. According to Kane Kwei , it was his uncle Ataa Owuo (1904–1976) from whom he had taken the idea. He ran a cabinet maker in Teshie in the 1950s and, according to Kane Kwei, is said to have occasionally made figurative coffins or sedan chairs. However, nothing more is currently known about Ataa Owuo's works and no photos or other documents are available for his work. So it is questionable whether this cabinet maker ever made figural coffins. In Teshie's neighboring town of La there was another well-known master named Ataa Oko , who was making figural coffins even before 1950. Kane Kwei knew Ataa Oko, but did not reveal his name in an interview.

Ataa Oko had already started making figural coffins around 1945. In addition to the oral tradition, there are photos from the 1950s and 1960s that prove this. He quickly became famous throughout the coastal region for his unusual works. Kane Kwei and Ataa Oko met personally around 1970 at the latest when Kane Kwei married his second wife from Ataa Oko's house in La and was therefore often seen in La.

Ataa Oko says that he was inspired by a dream vision for his first figure coffin, a crocodile. He had made this coffin for the wife of a relative of a chief. His family wasn't happy about it, though. They considered making a crocodile coffin dangerous. The relatives warned him that a crocodile could kill him if he continued to build such coffins. But he did not let himself be discouraged, and besides, he dreamed again. This is how his first coffins were created one after the other: a house, a chair, a chicken, a fish and a canoe. Ataa Oko and Kane Kwei both pretended to have been the first to carve out figural coffins. However, figural sedan chairs were already in vogue among the Ga between 1930 and 1960 , in which the chiefs could be carried around on important occasions. According to his own statements, Ataa Oko saw such sedan chairs that outwardly looked the same as the figurative coffins. The ethnologist Regula Tschumi assumes that the figural sedan chairs inspired the artist to create his figurative coffins.

Ataa Oko had not been in contact with strangers for a long time. His workshop was away from the main thoroughfares and he only made his coffins for his family and Ghanaian customers. This is arguably the main reason that he and his works remained unknown in Western art circles until the 1970s. Ataa Oko developed his very own artistic language of form in his coffins, unaffected by the western art market. His coffins differ not only in their basic construction, but also in the materials used by the artist from those works that have previously been shown in Western museums and galleries.

As the latest research results on the figurative coffins and litters of the Ga show, coffins and litters are closely related in their use and meaning and have been used for much longer than was previously assumed in the West. The search for an “inventor” of this unusual art form is particularly unnecessary because today nobody can know where and when such objects were first produced.

For making the figurative coffins

In the various workshops in the Greater Accra region that make figurative coffins, each master employs at least one or even several apprentices who do a large part of the work. This allows the master to make several coffins at the same time. Indigenous wawa wood is usually used for the coffins used in Ghana; durable precious woods such as mahogany are only used for museum coffins. All carpentry work is carried out in all studios without the use of electrical machines, only by hand and with the simplest of tools. The figurative coffins are completed within two to six weeks, depending on the level of difficulty and how skilled the carpenters and apprentices are. When it is particularly urgent, several carpenters work on one object. Depending on the model, the coffins are painted by the master himself or by a professional artist, a so-called sign painter. You are also one of the artists who make hand-painted movie posters for the small cinemas in the region. Theaters and hand-painted film posters in Ghana rarely exist today, but sign painters are now making their hand-painted posters for the western art market.

Biographical data of some independent coffin artists

Ataa Oko Addo

The two Ghanaian coffin artists Ataa Oko and Kudjoe Affutu in front of Ataa Oko's rooster

Ataa Oko Addo (1919–2012) was born in the coastal town of La in Greater Accra (Ghana). He worked as a freelance coffin and palanquin carpenter and Art brut artist in La. At the age of 13 he began to work as a fisherman and on cocoa plantations in the Asante area. In 1936 he began his apprenticeship as a carpenter at Sowah Obu in Accra. In 1939 he lost three fingers in an accident and had to interrupt his work as a carpenter for a long time. Then he got fixed-term employment contracts as a carpenter again and produced his first figural coffins as early as 1945–1948. That is why he is considered to be one of the pioneers of Ghanaian coffin art in Ghana . In 1950 he found work in Tamale . After his return in 1951 he opened his own carpentry workshop in La (formerly Labadi). Here he came into contact with Kane Kwei around 1970.

Ataa Oko's work was first mentioned by the Swiss ethnologist Regula Tschumi , who met the artist during her first field research in 2002. From then on, Ataa Oko and Regula Tschumi maintained a close collaboration that lasted until Ataa Oko's death in December 2012, during which the artist developed into a draftsman and painter. This led to his first participation in an international art exhibition in 2006: "Six Feet Under" at the Kunstmuseum Bern . Four years later, Ataa Oko's figural coffins and his drawings were honored in a first solo exhibition at the Collection de l'Art Brut Lausanne .

Kudjoe Affutu

Kudjoe Affutu , Ghanaian coffin artist (2007), photo: Regula Tschumi

Affutu (his first name is written either Kudjoe or Kudjo) was born in 1985 in Awutu Bawyiase (Central Region, Ghana). At the age of seventeen he began his four-year apprenticeship as a coffin carpenter with Paa Joe in Nungua. Since 2007 he has lived and worked as a freelance coffin artist in his hometown. Since then, Kudjoe Affutu has made a name for himself in Europe with his participation in various exhibitions and artistic projects: in 2011 at the Tinguely Museum Basel (lobster coffin for the exhibition Fetish Car. I drive, therefore I am ), at the Center Pompidou , Paris (Pompidou coffin in the exhibition Anthologie de l'humour noir by Saâdane Afif ), or with his refrigerator coffin in two exhibitions by Thomas Demand at the Nouveau Musée National of Monaco 2010/11, as well as in the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York 2011.

Eric Adjetey Anang

Coffin artist from Ghana at a workshop in January 2010 (2010)

Eric Adjetey Anang was born in Teshie in 1985. Son of Cedi Anang Kwei (born in Teshie in 1965 as the fourth son of Kane Kweis). Immediately after graduating from secondary school, he took over the studio founded by his grandfather Seth Kane Kwei from his father Cedi Anang Kwei. In 2009 Eric Adjetey Anang was invited to the exhibition Operation Boulevard Amandla in Antwerp, Belgium.

Seth Kane Kwei

Seth Kane Kwei (1925–1992), often referred to in western art circles as the inventor of the figurative coffins of the Ga, was born in Teshie , Ghana. Around 1944–1947 he worked as a woodcutter in the Asante area and in 1947 began training as a carpenter with his brother Kane Adjetey in Teshie. Like Ataa Oko, Kane Kwei is considered a pioneer of Ghanaian coffin art. From 1951 Kane made his first figurine coffin together with his brother Adjetey. At that time, however, figurative sedan chairs and the figural coffins connected to the sedan chairs were already being used by the heads of Accra . They are likely to have inspired Kane Kwei to create his first figurative coffins. Around 1950 Kane opened his first workshop in the old part of Teshie, where Daniel Mensah works today . In 1962 he moved into a new studio on the main street in Teshie, which is now still run under the name "Kane Kwei Workshop". Kane Kwei had his first contacts with western art dealers from California in 1972, followed by his first exhibition in 1974 at Vivian Burns' gallery "The Egg and The Ey" in Los Angeles. In 1989, Kane Kwei and Paa Joe participated in the exhibition "Les Magiciens de la terre" at the Center Pompidou in Paris. When the artist died in Teshie in 1992, he was buried in a coffin made by Paa Joe.

Paa Joe

Paa Joe with sandal coffin 2006, Photo: Regula Tschumi

Paa Joe was born in the Akwapim region (Ghana) in 1947 and began his ten-year apprenticeship with Kane Kwei in Teshie at the age of 15, after which he was a master carpenter with Kane Kwei for twelve years. With his employment at the canoe maker Yao Yartel he moved to Elmina in 1974. In 1976 he started his own business in Nungua. In 1989 he took part in the exhibition “Les Magiciens de la terre” in Paris, in 2005 in a solo exhibition at “Jack Shainman Gallery” in New York and in 2006 in the group exhibition “Six Feet Under” at the Kunstmuseum Bern and in 2007/2008 in the exhibition of the same name in the German Hygiene Museum Dresden . In the same year he also exhibited at the Forum Théatre Meyrin (Switzerland). In 2007 Paa Joe opened a new studio in Pobiman , near Accra, where he now works with his son Jacob. In addition to being a talented coffin artist, Paa Joe has made most of the figural sedan chairs still in existence in recent years . In 2016 the Artdocs film "Paa Joe and the Lion" by Benjamin Wigley and Anna Griffin was shown for the first time in England. Paa Joe is now over 70 years old and retired. His atelier is now run by his son Jacob and his former employees.

Eric Kpakpo

Eric Kpakpo was born in Nungua in 1979. He learned his craft from 1994 to 2000 with Paa Joe in Nungua, where he worked as a master until 2005. In 2006 he opened his own coffin studio in La and is now one of the most famous coffin artists in the Accra region. He also still works for Paa Joe's studio and In recent years, Eric Kpakpo has made a name for himself on the international art market, especially for the production of his coffin miniatures.

Daniel Mensah (called Hello)

Hello with his vintage coffin (2006), photo: Regula Tschumi

Daniel Mensah , also known as Hello, was born in Teshie in 1968 and began his six-year apprenticeship with Paa Joe in Nungua in 1984. He then worked as a master carpenter at Paa Joe for eight years. In 1998 he opened his "Hello Design Coffin Works" studio in Teshie. He worked on various European film projects, including delivering the police coffin for Sépulture sur mesure (TV5, 2009).


International exhibitions (contributions to group exhibitions)

  • 2020: Kunsthalle Hamburg in "Mourning. Of Loss and Changes", coffin miniatures by Kudjoe Affutu.
  • 2017: Fondation Cartier Paris in "Malick Sidibé" Rolleiflex coffin by Paa Joe.
  • 2016: Museum of Cultures Basel in "Gross" lobster coffin by Kudjoe Affutu.
  • 2016: Natural History Museum Bern in "C'est la vie" Telephone and cock coffin by Kudjoe Affutu.
  • 2011: Miracles of Africa . in the Hämeenlinna Art Museum, Hämeenlinna et Oulu Museum of Art, Oma, Finland with drawings by Ataa Oko.
  • 2011: Drawings by Ataa Oko at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Handle Rhys Jones. September 27 - December 4, 2011.
  • 2011: Matthew Marks Gallery, New York City. Fridge coffin by Kudjoe Affutu in the exhibition La carte d'aprês nature by Thomas Demand.
  • 2011: Tinguely Museum Basel . Hummer coffin by Kudjoe Affutu for the exhibition Fetish Auto. I drive, therefore I am. June 8th - October 9th 2011.
  • 2010: Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne. Solo exhibition Ataa Oko et les Esprits , drawings and coffins.
  • 2010: Center Pompidou, Paris. Pompidou coffin by Kudjoe Affutu in the exhibition Anthologie de l'humour noir by Saâdane Afif.
  • 2010: Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, Villa Paloma. Fridge coffin by Kudjoe Affutu in the opening exhibition La carte d'aprês nature by Thomas Demand.
  • 2006, 2007/2008: Kunstmuseum Bern and German Hygiene Museum, Dresden. Exhibition Six Feet Under: Autopsy of our handling of the dead . Drawings and coffin by Ataa Oko and coffins by Paa Joe.


  • Roberta Bonetti: Alternate Histories of the Abebuu Adekai. In: African Arts . Vol. 43, No. 3, 2010, pp. 14-33.
  • Jean-Hubert Martin, Simon Njami: A conversation about Kane Kweis coffins. In: Museum Kunstpalast (Ed.): Afrika Remix. Contemporary art from a continent. 2004, pp. 267-273.
  • Ute Ritz-Müller: By luxury limousine to the afterlife. In: Museum of Ethnology (ed.): Slow farewell. Death and the afterlife in a cultural comparison. Exhibition catalog. Museum für Völkerkunde, Frankfurt am Main 2001, pp. 181–198
  • Thierry Secretan: Il fait sombre, va-t'en. Hazan, Paris 1994.
  • Regula Tschumi : The Buried Treasures of the Ga: Coffin Art in Ghana. Edition Till Schaap, Bern 2014, ISBN 978-3-03828-016-3 .
  • Regula Tschumi: The last honor comes first. Ghanaian burial rituals and figural coffins. Pp. 114-125. In: Kunstmuseum Bern (ed.): Six Feet Under. Autopsy of our handling of the dead. Kerber, Bielefeld / Leipzig 2006.
  • Regula Tschumi: death bed for a living person. A coffin for the Center Pompidou. In: Eva Huttenlauch (ed.): Saâdane Afif. Another Anthology of Black Humor. MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Nuremberg 2012, pp. 57–72.
  • Regula Tschumi: The Figurative Palanquins of the Ga. History and Significance. In: African Arts. Vol. 46, No. 4, 2013, pp. 60-73.
  • Regula Tschumi: The figural sedan chairs and coffins of the Ga in southern Ghana. History, transformation and meaning of an artistic form of expression from the beginning to the present. Diss. Phil.-Hist. University of Basel, 2013.
  • Regula Tschumi: Hidden Art. The figural sedan chairs and coffins in Ghana. Edition Till Schaap, Bern 2014, ISBN 978-3-03828-098-9 .

Web links

Commons : Coffin Art in Ghana  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Roberta Bonetti: Alternate Histories of the Abebuu Adekai. In: African Arts . Autumn 2010, pp. 14–33: Like Regula Tschumi (2006), Roberta Bonetti comes to the conclusion that Kane Kwei is an “inventor” invented by the art market: “[…] We have seen how the same criteria of authenticity that were fundamental in documenting the uniqueness and truthfulness of ancient works have been adopted for recent coffins. The proof is provided by the presumed origin of the work, which has become even more precious and exceptional ever since the death of its "invented" inventor, Kane Kwei. "
  2. ^ Regula Tschumi: The Figurative Palanquins of the Ga. History and Significance. In: African Arts. 46 (4), 2013, pp. 61-62.
  3. ^ A b Regula Tschumi: The Figurative Palanquins of the Ga. History and Significance. In: African Arts. 46 (4), 2013, pp. 60-73.
  4. This coffin was in the center of the exhibition “Anthologie de l'humour noir” at the Center Pompidou in Paris 2010. Photo: Regula Tschumi
  5. Finland expositions
  6. Ghanaian 'fantasy coffin' ( Memento of the original from November 20, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  7. Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne