Imagine sculptures of a fish, crocodile, onion, and a cow. Got it? Now imagine these sculptures brightly colored and decorated, their functional purpose being a coffin.
The Western Gallery has a new exhibit entitled, “Coffin Makers of Ghana.” The exhibit is set to run from January 20 to March 10.
“Coffin Makers of Ghana” stems from the extravagant funeral process that takes place in Ghana and other parts of Africa, most specifically the Ga people of Ghana. The funeral celebration takes place over several days with festivities, decorations, and reflections on the life of the recently deceased.
As explained by Kunle Ojikutu, the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and also the Special Assistant to the President, in African culture there are three celebratory stages in life. The first is birth, the second is when a person becomes of age, and the third is death. In this third stage, the coffin is seen as a means of transport into the afterlife.
Kan Quaye started the practice of making decorative, sculpted coffins after the death of his grandmother who had always wanted to go on a plane, but never did. So for her vessel into the afterlife, he built her an airplane coffin. In the 1950s he started a workshop near Accra, the capital of Ghana, and later became further admired in the early 1970s.
Over time, the workshop came into the hands of the current lead artist Theophilus Nii Anum Sawah who has taken steps to do things that have not been done before and broaden the traditional workshop. Although the workshop still makes coffins for funerary celebrations, it’s been expanded to include production of pieces to be viewed as fine art and viewed from within a gallery. The coffins still have the function of being a coffin, but the artists’ intent differs.
The sculpture’s are coated with several layers of brightly colored pigments and bold decisions in regards to the animals’ facial qualities. At first glance, the idea of these pieces of art constructed on a coffin doesn’t appear obvious. But, once a viewer sees the hinges of the coffin opened, it becomes evident that these are in fact functional art pieces.
Over winter break, a group of students in the sociology department attended the workshop in Ghana; their photos and a video clip can be seen at the exhibit. Another way in which the exhibit hopes to extend the cultural insight to the Western community is with workshops presented on various aspects of African culture, like the workshop in Ghana. Milton Krieger, who use to teach courses in African art in the Liberal Studies program at Western, will be giving a lecture on Wednesday, January 31 at noon.
“I have been interested in the exhibition because of the tradition itself, and the African culture,” said Clark-Langager. “As usual, we’re all going to come to the exhibit with many different mindsets. I’m interested in African culture and the long tradition of the funeral process and various objects associated with funeral.