Beyond the grave

It’s a sobering thought that when you die, you may not have achieved some of your more outlandish dreams: flying on Concorde, perhaps, or visiting the moon.

However, for the Ga people of Ghana, death presents no obstacle to achieving your dreams. Here, coffins can become the vehicles by which you fulfil your wildest fantasies.

Car coffin
Car coffin

Tonight sees the opening of a show of sculpted coffins by the Ghanaian artist Paa Joe at London’s Jack Bell Gallery.

Ghana has a tradition of giving people wonderful send offs.  In 1951, Kane Quaye and his brother Ajetey made a coffin in the form of an airplane in which to bury their grandmother, who had always dreamed of flying, but never had the chance.

Bird coffin
Aeroplane coffin

The idea was hugely successful in the local community; and now people are buried in such magnificent vessels as iPods, mobile phones and lions.

Paa Joe
Paa Joe

Paa Joe, who was Quaye’s apprentice, is now the pre-eminent coffin artist of Ghana, and has had his works shown in exhibitions across the world, including in America, Canada, Tokyo and England.

This exhibition will be showing four of his recent works – a fish, and airplane, a cocoa pod and an eagle.

Bird coffin
Fish coffin

Gallery owner Jack Bell, says, ‘They’re such an upbeat take on death – they make you laugh.  It’s a great combination of traditional African and contemporary art. They look like Jeff Koons sculptures.’

He adds, ‘They’re mega status symbols. People pool funds in the community to help people go out with a bang. The coffins have amazing interiors, with kitch pink satin linings. The community throws a huge party after the burial.’

Bird coffin
Bird coffin

Bell visited Ghana earlier this year, and says that the exhibitions he shows are inspired by the Magiciens de la Terre show in Paris’ Pompidou centre in 1989, which sought to correct the problem of ‘100 per cent of exhibitions ignoring 80 per cent of the earth’.

The exhibition will also display a series of maquettes, including a Mercedes car, a truck and a little lion – for a hunter’s burial. All the coffins serve as iconic symbols of local life, and act as humorous, beautiful affirmations of life.

Paa Joe
Paa Joe

Paa Joe: Taking it With You is showing at the Jack Bell Gallery, 25 November- 15 January, 276 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V.

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