Sunday, November 10, 2013

Art and Death intersect in Ghana

February 2009


Melting theme caskets commissioned by Olaf Breuning

Believe it or not, the three sculptures above are functional caskets. Artist Olaf Breuning commissioned this set of three caskets from Ghanaian artisans in 2004.  The idea for these caskets, in the shapes of a snowman, an ice cream bar, and a chocolate bar,  didn't just come from the artist himself, though he designed them and oversaw their construction.  The tradition of fanciful and fantastic caskets has been growing in Ghana for some 50 years. 



Journalist Nicky Barranger explains the phenomenon of these fantastic caskets in this excerpt from an article on BBC:

"Isaac Adjetey Sowah is the manager of the family business his grandfather started.  And at only 22 he has seen it all and he has made it all.  Coffins crafted as hammers, fish, cars, mobile phones, hens, roosters, leopards, lions, canoes, cocoa beans and several elephants.  It seems there is nothing Isaac's company would not consider.  Mercedes and Cadillacs are very popular he tells me.  'Dignity and status'

But if the designs are fanciful, the business of death is taken very seriously indeed.  And the final journey on this earth has to be marked with as much dignity and status as can be mustered.  Isaac and his team of carpenters work with many different types of wood in the open-air workshop.  One employee is crafting a cocoa bean, another is chiseling the fine details of a complicated pineapple design.  Many of their clients want to bury loved ones in something that reflects their trade.  Even if that means being buried in a Coca-Cola bottle....




Here we see Breuning's snowman in its early stages


...Perhaps surprisingly, this is a new tradition. It has only been around for about 50 years.

The story goes that in the first half of last century one Ata Owoo was well-known for making magnificent chairs to transport the village chief on poles or the shoulders of minions.  When Owoo had finished one particularly elaborate creation, an eagle, a neighbouring chief wanted one too, this time in the shape of a cocoa pod. A major crop in Ghana.  However, the chief next door died before the bean was finished and so it became his coffin.  Then in 1951, the grandmother of one of Owoo's apprentices died.  She had never been in an aeroplane, so he built her one for her funeral.  And a tradition was born."
for the full article and pictures of many traditional designs, visit


Here, the lid of Breuning's ice cream bar casket is constructed




The cover of Thierry Seretan's book on Ghanaian caskets shows a procession with a more traditional Ghanaian casket in the shape of a lion

The Ghanaian caskets have been the subject of many articles, museum exhibitions, and a book by Thierry Secretan. Mr. Breuning and Ghanaian locals haven't been the only ones to order caskets from these craftsman.  As the Fair Trade E Shop Africa site notes, custom caskets have been commissioned by private individuals, an British automobile magazine, and museums around the world.  
In funeral service these days, we hear a lot of buzz about personalized services and products. Certainly these caskets go a step or two beyond a hobby themed corner on a standard casket.  We'll have to wait and see just how many of these caskets end up in the ground, and how many end up in art galleries.  More important, perhaps, is understanding the statements artists are making with these caskets.  They are exploring changes in how we as individuals approach and control the context, trappings and meanings of our own deaths.  This exploration can take frivolous or more earnest paths.   Nevertheless, the process of examining our concepts of death, and having a hand in the rituals that follow it can help to make not only our deaths, but our lives more meaningful. Recently, in conjunction with the Ik R.I.P. exhibition, which can be visited through April 12, 2009, Amsterdam arts organization Mediamatic ordered a custom-crafted casket for graphic designer Anuschka Linse in the shape of a teddy bear.  Ms. Linse's design may or may not be what you would like to be buried in, but it challenges us all to rethink our relationship with our own deaths. 

 Ms. Linse's original design

Here is an excerpt from Mediamatic about the IK R.I.P. Show: 
Mediamatic encourages you to think about death. It may not be a happy topic, but it is important nonetheless. Besides arranging your funeral, obtaining a life insurance and drafting your will it can be useful to think about what you leave behind in the online world. You may have a profile on Mediamatic.net and other networks, perhaps you write a blog or chat with people who live on the other side of the world. What happens to all those affairs if you suddenly pass away?
The exhibition focuses on the relation between death, identity and self-expression. We will display coffins from Ghana, designed by the Ga tribe. These coffins take on the shape of a fish, football or pineapple, depending on the job, hobby or favorite food of the dead person! Mediamatic also ordered a coffin that will be specially designed for us.


The Casket in the early stages of construction




Here is Ms. Linse modeling her casket

1 comment:

skinnyGLASSESgirl said...

I want to be buried in a Cobra casket!

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization. dailyundertaker@gmail.com

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