This November, Gallery 1957, Accra presents a collaborative project between renowned fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe and performance artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, running from 21 November 2017 – 10 February 2018. Coinciding with Paa Joe’s 70th birthday (and marking his 40th year in the coffin trade), the exhibition considers traditional funerary customs in contemporary Ghana.
Exploring specific funeral practices of the country’s Ga and Fante communities – coastal societies to which the artists belong - the exhibition focuses on the fictional passing of a young girl. Presenting death as a journey, mediated through water, the works consider the trisection of the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the dead.
Paa Joe, aided by his son and apprentice Jacob Tetteh Ashong, will present six of his fantasy coffins, each inspired by the seascape. The works will be activated by Sutherland’s practice, bringing together twelve performers in traditional funeral costumes to re-enact elements of Ga and Fante funerals, alongside video projections featuring conversations between the performers, Sutherland and Paa Joe. Intertwining Sutherland’s contemporary practices with the idiosyncratic woodworking discipline of Paa Joe, the exhibition builds on current movements within Ghanaian contemporary art which champion interdisciplinary and multigenerational collaboration, whilst challenging traditional and structural definitions of fine art. The work also explores the implication of objects in rituals of memory, commemoration, identity, and self-realisation.
Also included are banners inspired by the ‘frankaa’ or ‘Asafo’ flags for which the Fante are known. Visual markers of position and power used by the Asafo warrior groups, the banners depict people, boats, plant forms and animals alongside geometric patterns. Here, Sutherland presents banners displaying deconstructed shapes and symbols - visual metaphors for the dissolving of traditional identities within contemporary Ghana.
The practice of making fantasy coffins traces back to the Ga community of the Greater Accra region, where figurative, custom coffin designs accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The coffins are an unusual feature of Ga material tradition; arguably more minimalist in aesthetic in comparison to Fante (or other Akan ethnic groups), the coffins stand apart from these communities’ elaborate material traditions, which range from textiles like kente cloth, to practices of carving and metalwork.
The title, taken from the Ga proverb “akԑ yaaa heko” (“one does not take it anywhere”) describes limits of wealth and power, highlighting the human inability to carry worldly possessions to the afterlife. Presented in contrast to these figurative coffins, the proverb highlights the artists’ joint interrogation of the attitudes and motivations behind material culture and ideas of transition among the Ga and Fante peoples.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication.
Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, Sui Generi, taken at Chale Wote Street Art Festival, Jamestown, Accra. 2015. Photo by Desire Clark. Portrait of Paa Joe courtesy of the artist.