Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Eagle Coffin
For the Ga, the dominant ethnic group in southern coastal Ghana, funerals are a time for both mourning and celebration.
According to the traditional beliefs of the Ga, one’s life carries on beyond death. Many Ga choose to be buried in what are often referred to in the West as “fantasy coffins.” These figurative coffins take a wide range of forms, everything from lions to airplanes to soda bottles. Such coffins are believed to ensure the continuation of earthly activities in the afterlife. They are also a way for the Ga community to honor the individual who has passed on to the realm of the ancestors.
Some “fantasy coffins” are carved to represent a symbol of material success, such as a Mercedes Benz, or a habit that the dead had enjoyed in life, such as cigarette smoking. Others refer to the profession of the deceased. For example, a fish or lobster coffin might be created for someone whose livelihood was rooted in the sea, while an individual whose wealth came from planting might be buried in a cocoa pod. Eagles like the one seen here are especially popular for chiefs.
Considered a fetish practice by the Church, many Christians among the Ga forgo such coffins. Others leave instructions that they be should be placed in a plain coffin for the church funeral and then transferred to their personalized coffin for burial. The coffins themselves are often difficult to fit into traditional burial plots and must be broken in order to be lowered into the ground.
The practice of making these representational coffins started with a carpenter named Ata Owoo and was further developed as an art form by Kane Quaye. Kane Quaye, in turn, trained his nephew, Paa Joe, in the art of coffin-making. Today, their descendants carry on the tradition.
Christa Clarke, Senior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum
“‘Fantasy coffins’ are produced in southern Ghana. They are made in very elaborate forms that are meaningful to the deceased and the deceased’s life—the person’s achievements in life, the person’s status in society. They take the shape of, for instance, an eagle, which could refer to a person’s leadership position. Sometimes they reference the person’s livelihood. You see sacks of flour; you see coffins in the shape of cell phones.
The idea of creating an amazing fantastic coffin that then goes off public view because it’s buried really is one of the ways that reinforces the differences between the way art is thought of in African societies, and maybe perhaps other non-Western societies, than in Western societies. There’s not as great a focus on the idea of art being necessarily a permanent object meant to be on public display. There’s a saying that art is a verb in Africa, and you see that through performance, you see that through the use of an object. The process, for instance, is as important as what is created. And there’s just not the same sense of an object being created to be a permanent part of society. You might see monumental forms of African art, but often they are left to the environment and are then destroyed. There’s a much more ephemeral nature to a lot of African art.
I don’t think that the ‘fantasy coffins’ are necessarily viewed as humorous—lively, visually engaging, certainly. I think that often because they have been displayed in the Western world, and they are often received by Westerners visually in the context of Pop Art, which is really not what they’re about in an African context. They are quite woven into the fabric of life and meant to be very dramatic because it is one of the ways of honoring an important individual and suggesting their place in society.”
Buckley, Stephen. “In Africa, Funerals Use Rituals of Joy to Ease Sorrow.”Washington Post, December 22, 1997.
Burns, Vivian. “Travel to Heaven: Fantasy Coffins.” African Art 7.2 (Winter 1974): 24–25.
Secretan, Thierry. Going into Darkness: Fantastic Coffins from Africa.London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.