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Paa Joe: The Ghanan coffin maker

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Paa JoeFunerals in Ghana are known as celebration of life because the deceased is been escorted with the coffin of his occupation to the next world.

Ghaneans give new definition to the phrase `Going out in Style’ with their funeral practices.  I was recently in Accra at beginning of last month to film a documentary on the African Courts of Human Rights. As we spent close to eight hours every day commuting in the most dense and debilitating traffic I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing in an otherwise pleasantly organised country, gazing out the window became a life-line of sanity.

On a particular day, we drove past a funeral procession in a compound on the outskirts of Accra Central. The cortege included an incredible coffin; a colourful and bright wooden sculpture that housed the lifeless body of the dead person.

 

The car we were travelling in was going too fast to identify the subject of the coffin. Fortunately divine providence revealed when I got home that the third generation coffin-maker from the famous Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop studio established in Teshie, Ghana, since the Fifties that started the movement is actually on Face Book- and lo and behold on one of my networks.

 

Enter Paa Joe:

Would you like to be buried in a Porsche? Is it a reflection of your style and personal ambitions that you lived? By the looks of it Paa Joe, the nephew of Seth Kane Kwei does- a sky blue Old Skool Carrera to be precise; with his name on the license plate.

Seth Kane Kwei (1922–1992 ) was a carpenter joiner established in Teshie, in the suburbs of Accra in Ghana. He is considered as the inventor at the beginning of 1950s of the design coffins or fantasy coffins called Abebuu adekai (“ boxes with proverbs “) by Ga people that is the dominant ethnic group of that region of Accra.

"I was given to my uncle who was the second generation of producing fantasy coffin Ghana. He is named Kane Kwei. I trained at Teshie a coastal area of Accra Ghana from 1960-1970. I then opened my own coffin studio as the third generation from 1977. I don’t only produce coffins for the dead but also for Museums and Galleries all over the world; for exhibitions.

Funerals in Ghana are known as celebration of life because the deceased is been escorted with the coffin of his occupation to the next world.

The use of these coffins during the burial in Ga country became widespread from the beginning 1960s, becoming de facto a real tradition. Design coffins are acknowledged as symbolic of the contemporary creation in Africa.

At the death of Kane Kwei, his son Sowah took over the workshop, then Cedi - junior child of Kane Kwei- after the death of Sowah in 1999.

Since 2005, Eric Adjetey Anang (born 1985, son of Cedi) attempts to revitalize the creativity of the studio by the introduction of new models, the creation of furniture realized in the same spirit and with the same techniques as the coffins.

About ten carpenter’s workshops established in Teshie and in the region of Accra produce similar coffins. Among them, we find Tei in Dorwanya, Lay and Hello in Teshie, Tetteh in Amasaman and Tetteh Red in Ningo. Their bosses are former apprentices of Kane Kwei or his successors. Furthermore there are the workshops of Kudjoe Affutu and the master craftsmen Paa Joe and Paa Willie in Nungua, both of them trained carpenters at Kane Kwei’s, before they opened their own shops.

Tetteh, a stout man with an easy smile, sells his coffins for about US$400 (Approx. Shs1million) apiece. Sometimes one well-off son or daughter will take responsibility for the coffin; on other occasions, a number of relatives will pool money to pay for it. In an interview by Stephen Buckley in the Washington Post Foreign Service, Tetteh made an interesting quote: ``The deceased may have been poor in life, Tetteh said, but “when they die, no more poor.”

Funerals in Ghana are expensive.  Relatives of the bereaved tend to rent brass beds in the wake room for US$135; mortuary fees come to US$130; decorations totaled US$130. Estimates put funeral costs at about $1,400 (Approx. Shs 3.5 million), and those are not the expensive ones.

When asked his favorite subject for a coffin, Paa Joe says he is entirely regulated by what the customer wants.  ``Obviously I don’t have favorite coffins; all the types of coffins are prescribed by the customers both for burial and exhibition’’

"How about when making for exhibitions what are your favorite subjects’’, I ask?

"They are special orders’’ he replies. ``Because it’s amazing for everyone they want to have them in their galleries.  They order due to previous photos and the awareness of the media’’. ``I have exhibited in Africa only Ghana and Zimbabwe but internationally in USA, UK, Japan, Canada, Australia, Italy, France, Demark, Germany, Korea, Holland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Due the response internationally I have been invited to USA as a guest artist.

Wow! I say. I am genuinely happy that a contemporary spin on an ancient African ritual is gaining attention and admiration all over the world.

"They admire them; I might be in UK this year for another show,” he says.

Is there a message you try to pass on with your coffins I ask?

"Yes as at now I want to build a coffin gallery in Ghana and I need grants and support from all over the world to accomplish this project. As we know death is part of life’’. And so it is. And personally, I don’t subscribe to the pretentious and fake projectile wailing competitions we call our funerals. When I go, bury me in a paintbrush and dance around my grave.

Email: Paa Joe via This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The exhibition at the Southbank Gallery in London is on 20-29th January 2012.


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