Craftsman Joseph Tetteh Ashong, otherwise known as Paa Joe, is the most prolific coffin artist in Ghana. Based in Accra, his recent handcrafted casket designs include an Air Jordan sneaker and a Louis Vuitton x Supreme bag. These designs, he says, are requested by some of the most extreme shoe and fashion lovers in Ghana.
While pop culture and fashion requests are a recent occurrence in the world of Ghanaian coffin art, celebratory and extravagant coffins are not. Rooted in the traditional Ghanaian custom of abebuu adekai, “fantasy coffins” are popular among the Ga community in Ghana (where funerals can be a long, drawn-out process). They cater to families that believe in life after death and the designs often reference someone’s profession to reflect the belief that the deceased will continue their career in the afterlife.
Paa Joe comes from a family of prominent fantasy coffin makers, with his uncle teaching him the craft at age 16, but his modern coffin designs (ranging from Porsches, shoes, film cameras, basketballs, drum machines, and Pepsi bottles) have gained him a significant global Instagram following. His work has been displayed at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the V&A in London, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Celebrating his 72nd birthday this year, Paa Joe thinks funerals across the world should be more celebratory. “We can send the departed out in a glorious and a stylish way,” he says. “I’m excited when my coffin has served a purpose and helped someone to travel to the afterlife.”
i-D spoke to Paa Joe about death, funerals, and his most popular designs.
How did you start making fantasy coffins?
I started making coffins back in 1962. Through my mother and my uncle Seth Kane Kwei, my master and the originator of these particular coffin artworks.
Who are your clients?
Everyone is my client, both the rich and the poor.
What are some of the most common design requests?
The most common requests are fish, cocoa pod, and the Holy Bible.
When did you start getting requests for sneaker coffins?
People are usually buried in these coffins according to their careers, symbol, or what they’re addicted to. A businessman would be buried in a Mercedes or Porsche; a journalist goes with camera believing life still continues in the afterlife. Shoe coffins are more new. The shoe coffins are usually for manufacturers or lovers of a particular shoe or brand.
And what about the animal designs?
These also represent the person’s role. Royals are buried in the Lion or the Eagle whiles chicken with chicks for a mother with many children.
How do you craft them?
These coffins are made from wood. We use hardwood for art pieces and exhibitions and soft wood for burials. We handcraft and hand paint these coffins, starting with joining different pieces of wood together.
What are your plans for the future of your fantasy coffin business?
I’d like to build an art academy for local and international art students to learn how to make these coffins and to build an art gallery for coffins.
Source: VICE US