Ghanian craftsman sends the departed off in style

Eric Adjetey Anang of Ghana with one of his recent works, on exhibit at the Center for Art in Wood through Oct. 25.
Eric Adjetey Anang of Ghana with one of his recent works, on exhibit at the Center for Art in Wood through Oct. 25. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 03, 2014

Some people want to be carried to their grave in a giant corn cob. Eric Adjetey Anang, a carpenter from Ghana, can make that happen.

The 28-year-old craftsman just finished a two-month residency at the Center for Art in Wood in Old City, and a sample of his work - which includes poplar caskets shaped like Coke and beer bottles, fish, and hand tools - is part of an exhibit that opened Friday at the center.

In Teshie, a suburb of the Ghanian capital, Accra, Anang owns a 10-employee shop that every week produces three to four of the fanciful coffins treasured by the Ga people. He is carrying on a family tradition started by his grandfather and the shop's namesake, Kane Kwei, who achieved renown in the 1960s for morphing a tribal tradition into something more whimsical.

It began when the family of a fisherman approached Kwei to request a fish-shaped casket, Anang said. Kwei obliged.

Next, the family of a dead woman who had seen Kwei's creation for the fisherman, came with another request.

"There was this mother who lived near the airport and used to watch the planes go in and out," Anang said. "All her life she watched the planes, wanting to be inside one."

In death, Kwei granted her wish. Her coffin resembled a plane.

The Swiss anthropologist Regula Tschumi, who last year published a study on the subject in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology journal African Arts, wrote in an e-mail that the "fantasy coffins" were once a form of class distinction among the Ga.

"Coffins are, for the Ga, not pieces of art. This is Western thinking," Tschumi said. "It's a sacrifice for the ancestor."

That view explains why Anang would create a beautiful object only for it to be buried for no one to see.

"We grew up knowing where our pieces went," Anang said. "But when you see the coffin being carried on the shoulders of the dead person's family, when you see crowds of people with cameras trying to get a picture of it, you know you did something special for them."

The price and number of hours spent on each coffin varies, he said. Simple caskets might sell for $100 to $200, while elaborate pieces - like a sea horse that took two months to complete - fetch up to $800.

In Ghana, Anang said, he uses traditional tools: hammers and other nonelectric implements, rather than the power drills and table saws he was exposed to during residencies abroad. Several scars dot his upper arms, where he said inexperience with more advanced equipment led to mishaps.

Nowadays, it takes Anang two weeks to buy, cut, and assemble the wood with putty, let the piece dry in the sun, and paint it. In the old days, he would have been more pressed for time.

"Now you have mortuaries where the bodies can be kept before the funeral, but when my grandfather was making them, he had three days to finish," he said.

Anang's pieces, including sculptures and other artwork, will be on display until Oct. 25. Among the pieces are a rust-colored spider sculpture (a collaboration with another artist), cabinets made using coffin-building techniques, and a beer-bottle-shape jewelry box.

"I really admire his creativity," said Albert LeCoff, the center's executive director.

The artist himself will remain in Philadelphia for only one day of the exhibit before flying to the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland for another residency. When he returns to Ghana, he will continue to promote woodworking as an art form, and help Ghanians see the craft as Americans do.

"I want them to stop with this, 'I want to be a doctor, I want to be a lawyer,' " he said. "When everyone is a doctor or a lawyer, who will be the carpenter?"


LONeal@phillynews.com

215-854-2619 @LydsONeal

The exhibit at the Center for Art in Wood, 141 N. Third St., continues through Oct. 25.

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