The art of making special, beautiful coffins is many hundreds of years
old -- from the sarcophagi of ancient Egyptians to the figurative
caskets for the chiefs and priests of the Ga people in Africa. Over the
past few decades this has evolved into an amazing art form practiced by
artists in Ghana. You can be buried in pretty much any kind of coffin
you choose -- from a Mercedes, to a Coke bottle, to a chicken.
Fantasy Coffin Artist Paa Joe and a Lion Coffin (You Tube Image)
The people of Ghana often choose to honor their loved ones after death with the symbol of something that was important to them in life. A photographer can be planted in a Nikon camera. An airline pilot can fly into the afterlife in his own jet. A fisherman can spend eternity inside a big fish. There doesn't seem to be any limit to the imagination that can go into these amazing pieces.
For artists like Paa Joe (Joseph Ashong), who is called the "grandfather of the fantasy coffin trade," coffins are now going beyond the realm of funerals and into the museum -- without having to wait to be dug up a couple of thousand years later. Not only that. Ben Wigley and his team of filmmakers from Great Britain have found funding on Kickstarter to finish producing a documentary about Paa Joe and his amazing pieces of artwork so that the world can appreciate his talent.
A Coke Bottle Coffin for a Soft Drink Vendor (You Tube Image)
While funerals are really big business in Ghana, Paa Joe and his business have fallen on hard times. He has been forced out of working in the center of the capital city of Accra, to doing his carvings in a shack on the outskirts. He is locked in a fight to keep his art alive. Wigley has been to Ghana numerous times to work on the project and even brought Paa Joe and some of his amazing coffins to Nottinghamshire in England to drum up support for the master craftsman.
Paa Joe started in the coffin business at the tender age of 16 at the urging of his mother. He took her advice and apprenticed with master coffin craftsman Kane Kwei. That was more than 50 years ago. Since then his work has been exhibited in Paris (1989), in New York and London (2005), and in Bern, Switzerland (2006). Most recently he spent time as an artist in residence in the U.K. in May 2013.
A Fish Coffin (You Tube Image)
These days Paa Joe's son Jacob is also learning the difficult and sometimes dangerous trade from his father. Son Isaac has already learned the trade. Working with many kinds of sharp implements can create a sudden trip to the hospital at any time. The slip of one of these tools can also ruin many hours of work. Together the father and sons are trying to turn the business around.
Each one of his amazing coffins can take months to produce and are usually seen by only a comparatively few mourners before they are buried forever. The film, titled Paa Joe and the Lion, hopes to capture the beauty of this unusual art form and bring it forth to the entire world.
Paa Joe and a Coffin in the Shape of a Sandal (Photo by Regula Tschumi/Creative Commons via Wikpedia)
For coffins that will actually be used in a funeral, wood from the native wawa tree is used. For pieces that are going to be shipped to exhibits and museums harder wood, such as mahogany, is used to prevent the piece from cracking or the occurrence of insect activity during the change in climate.
Paa Joe has received visits from American Presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. President Carter even bought two of the coffins and shipped them home to the U.S. President Obama had wanted to visit Paa Joe on his visit to Africa, but his people were not able to locate Paa Joe.
While the Kickstarter campaign is closed, Wigley still welcomes people to become involved. You can follow the progress of the documentary and the film's Tumblr page by clicking here.
Hopefully the efforts of Wigley and his documentary, as well as all of the press it has been generating, will help Paa Joe continue his business and keep sharing his talent with the world.
If you were going to have Paa Joe build a fantasy coffin for you, what would you want your coffin to be?
Sources: The Independent, Wikipedia, Kickstarter