Art Seen

The Unusual Artwork Of This Artist From Ghana Proves There Can Still Be Life After Death

"You must appreciate what God has given to you as an artist."

Death is always on Paa Joe Ashong's mind. 

While the idea of the afterlife is sad for some, for Ashong, it's a chance to celebrate a life through a career he's spent a large portion of his life pursuing — creating fantasy coffins.

Fantasy coffins, also known as abebuu adekai in Ghanian culture, are custom and functional colorful coffins that are made by specialized carpenters within Ghana's Greater Accra Region. The practice has only been around since 1950, but it's rooted in the belief that an afterlife exists and that people who die should have a coffin that best reflects them as individuals.

Ashong, 70, is one of Ghana's prominent fantasy coffin creators, creating designs ranging from a crab to a boat. He's constructed about 2,000 of them in various sizes, according to a new video from 60 Second Docs. 

His journey to becoming a fantasy coffin creator began at 16. In a message to A Plus, Ashong recalls having his mother take him to his uncle, Seth Kane Kwei, for an apprenticeship from 1962 to 1974. After two years of learning to carve a boat in Elmina on the south coast of Ghana, Ashong began seriously pursuing fantasy coffin making in 1977 and has been doing that ever since. 

In that time, Ashong's work has been featured in art exhibitions and has attracted attention from around the world, including former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

For Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, curator of an exhibition at Accra's ANO art space that celebrated Ashong's work in 2017, Ashong's work has played a pivotal role in Ghanian's art world.

"What I love so much about the coffins is that they underline this idea of art being part of life and death in Ghana," she said to The Guardian. "His coffins have been so prevalent in the birth of contemporary African art in the west."

Ashong's process of creating a fantasy coffin requires help from five people in order to create someone's final resting place. It can take him and those five people up to three weeks or three months to make the coffin. His favorites so far have been a lion and an eagle because they each require a lot of carving, which is something he enjoys.

Photo Credit: Paa Joe Ashong
Photo Credit: Paa Joe Ashong

When it comes to obstacles that might get in his way during the creative process, Ashong said the only time he faces a challenge is when making the coffins "is less than its usual time."

Otherwise, it's smooth sailing to create.

"I will take my time to do my work," Ashong said to 60 Second Docs.

Photo Credit: Paa Joe Ashong
Photo Credit: Paa Joe Ashong

In the future, Ashong said he would love to make a dinosaur coffin. But for now, he's bringing art to the afterlife one day at a time and appreciating what he's taken away from his job over the years.

"The biggest thing I have [learned] is you must appreciate what God has given to you as an artist," he said. 

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.